Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bear and Pears Fireboard

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice-President and Chief Curator
Can a simple board and batten construction, meant to cover a fireplace in the summer months and painted with the edges of a rag or even a sponge, be considered an icon of American art? The Fenimore Art Museum’s Bear and Pears fireboard is just such a piece. In the past 150+ years this work has gone from gracing the parlor of a rural home in New Hampshire to the more auspicious homes of a series of astute collectors that included a famous modernist sculptor (Elie Nadelman) and a pioneering scholar/author (Jean Lipman) to its current museum setting.
Why is this fireboard considered a great work of art? The unknown artist who painted the picture followed the guidelines of tastemaker Rufus Porter, who published a book in the 1820s (titled Curious Arts) and a series of articles in Scientific American in the 1840s on how to do mural painting and simple, effective decoration. Everything in Bear and Pears is on the horizon line, objects are made different sizes to give the illusion of depth, and the artist used a rag or sponge and stencils to paint faster. The result may be out of line with what we consider realism – the “pears” are larger than the house – but the balance of forms and colors is striking. It’s no wonder that so many of these untrained artists created works that bend the rules of realism; it requires a lot of training and experience to make a painting a “window” into the observed world. It is a testament to their innate artistic ability that the works these folk artists made were sought after by connoisseurs of modernism and eventually enshrined in museum collections.

Unknown Artist. Bears and Pears Fireboard, c.1825-1835. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0044.1961

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