Tuesday, September 29, 2009

John Singer Sargent’s women – got a title for us?

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
In a recent post by my colleague Chris Rossi, we asked for your help in developing a title for an upcoming clothing exhibition. Thanks to all of you who replied, we came up with a great title!
So, now we humbly ask for your help again. We are so excited to be organizing an exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s portraits of women for the 2010 exhibition season at Fenimore Art Museum. The portraits include Mrs. Charles Hunter and Mrs. William Shakespeare, both owned by the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y., Carmela Bertagna, owned by the Columbus Museum of Art, as well as other prominent women of the late 19th century. Amazingly, there has never been an exhibition devoted to Sargent’s women. These renowned women deserve a terrific title, don’t you think? Please comment your suggestions below!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

J.O.J. Frost’s Fifty Cent Paintings in a Wheelbarrow

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
The following post is from my other blog, American Folk Art at Cooperstown. Enjoy!

To say that you find folk art in the most unexpected places can be, in some circumstances, an understatement. Consider the case of John Orne Johnson (J. O. J.) Frost of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Frost was born in Marblehead in 1852 and went to sea as a young man, then settled down, married, had two children, and went into the restaurant business with his father-in-law. He retired due to illness in 1865 and helped his wife Annie raise her acclaimed sweet peas and flowers. After Annie’s death in 1919 he lived a quiet, solitary existence.
To fill his days, and perhaps overcome his grief, Frost took up painting. He depicted vivid scenes of Marblehead’s history, memories of his own life, and wooden models of ship, buildings, birds, and fish. Local legend has it that he often carted his paintings around town in a wheelbarrow, offering them for fifty cents each.

Eventually he was inspired to open his own museum at his home on Pond Street, where he built a small structure in the back and charged 25 cents to see his works and hear his stories of old Marblehead. Stories abound about how local folks made fun of the paintings, but did not deter Frost from his enterprise.

Frost died in 1928, and his son Frank inherited about 80 paintings. He sold some to a couple who arranged for a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which marked Frost’s first recognition as an artist, however short-lived.
The drama really unfolded in 1952, when a Mr. and Mrs. Mason bought the old Frost home on Pond Street. One day, while doing renovations to the house, they turned over some wallboards and found that the insides were painted with colorful scenes. By the time they finished their work, the Masons had discovered 33 Frost paintings that had been used by the artist's son to “sheetrock” rooms! The Masons sent the paintings off to galleries in New York and Boston in 1954, and Frost’s reputation as a major early 20th-century folk artist was sealed. Today his works are in major museums around the country.
You can see an impressive collection of Frost’s work at the Marblehead Historical Society and we always have one on view at the Fenimore Art Museum (see "Colonel Glover's Fishermen Leaving Marble Head for Cambridge, 1775" above). To me, it is another reminder to pay attention to those passionate local people who paint or sculpt their lives. And don’t ever pass up a fifty-cent painting in a wheelbarrow.
Above: Colonel Glover's Fishermen Leaving Marble Head for Cambridge, 1775 , painted in about 1925. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0024.1961

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's in a name?

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
What’s in a name? Well, if you are titling an exhibit, there is a lot that goes in to finding just the right words. A couple of blogs ago we were talking about the upcoming fashion exhibit here at Fenimore Art Museum. We are featuring 19th century dress ranging from silk-shot empire waist gowns to the silky confections sported by women in John Singer Sargent portraits. The theme of the exhibit goes beyond the beauty of the clothes and talks about what was happening in New York State and our emerging American republic, and how all that influenced fashion in the 19th century.
A 3-D draft layout of the exhibition

So, how to convey some of that heavy stuff and still entice visitors in the front door and downstairs to the gallery? We started out with some very scholarly titles and quickly morphed into something a bit more playful.

From our first round we had - Connecting Threads: A Century of New York State Fashion – but there are ton of exhibits and publications using these words for textile shows, so we needed to dig a bit more.

And with a little help from other members of the curatorial team we got to - The Empire State’s New Clothes: 19th Century Upstate Fashion – which is nice but doesn’t roll off your tongue in quite the right way.

So, through our blog and Facebook post, we put it out to you, gentle readers, and we got some great responses. These included - New York State all Buttoned Up and Empire Waists in the Empire State – nice and catchy but its not all empire style clothing nor are we buttons only.
Close, very close, but with a little more work and this time help from our friends in our Marketing department we tweaked the empire waists and just starting rattling off clothing terms. Like Eliza Doolittle singing about that “Rain in Spain” we kept rolling words off our tongues, and “By George we got it”- Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace: A Century of New York Fashion. Yes, a bit light and playful, but we also hope memorable and enticing. Come to the Great Hall in Fenimore Art Museum next April and see what is really behind all that lace and finery. You may be surprised at what you learn and still have fun doing it!
Variations in the graphic treatments for the new title.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Headless Bodies: Myth or Fiction?

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator

The following post is from my other blog, American Folk Art at Cooperstown. Enjoy!

In the more than 25 years of doing folk art exhibitions and giving tours to the public, I can attest that there is one “fact” that nearly everyone believes about folk art: folk portrait painters in the early and mid- 1800s painted the bodies in the winter and traveled around in the summer offering to paint one’s head in a body of one’s choosing. In fact, every time I take a tour group through the folk art galleries there is someone who will say, “Oh, those are the portraits where they painted the bodies in the winter…” How this iron-clad association came to be, I have no idea. It has not appeared in any published sources that I know of, even the popular magazines or newspapers that write about folk art.
So it will probably come as no surprise to you that it is patently untrue. Not that I can prove it to be false, but it stands to reason that if this was a wide-spread practice we would have found some headless bodies by now. Maybe stored away in some attic. Or in an artist’s estate. Or a little New England historical society collection (they save everything). Or at least written about in some diary or newspaper account from the 1830s or 1840s. But there is nothing. Dead silence on this issue.

What we do have, by contrast, is heads without bodies. Doesn’t that make more sense? People were particular about their likenesses. Before photography was invented in 1839 the portrait you had painted may well have been the only likeness of you taken in your lifetime. Often, artists would start with the head, sometimes on the back

of a canvas to practice. Sometimes, the picture is left unfinished for some unknown reason, and the head is left to float forever on the blank canvas. It would be pretty inconvenient – and an inefficient way of doing business – to travel the highways and byways with a load of headless bodies on canvas, hoping that you can somehow sell them all on your travels.
I suspect that the reason this myth came to be is the simple visual fact that many folk portraitists utilized stock poses and backgrounds to speed production of their work. The portraits shown here, by Samuel Miller, illustrate this practice. There is a certain sameness to how people presented themselves, and how they dressed, and how their interiors looked, that made this way of doing portraiture acceptable in many circumstances. But that’s still a far cry from peddling headless bodies.
Top: Picking Flowers, ca. 1845. Attributed to Samuel Miller (ca. 1807-1853). Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0255.1961.
Bottom: Emily Moulton, by Samuel Miller, 1852, courtesy Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interesting Finds in the Registrar's Office

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar

As registrar, my office serves as a holding area for artwork. On the rare occasion that I get a visitor in my office, there is one particular painting from our permanent collection I am temporarily storing that nearly everyone comments on but I knew nothing about. So, I thought a blog was in order.
It is truly a unique piece with vibrant colors and, well, interesting imagery. This oil on canvas painting (framed measurements H. 44 ¾ x W. 54 ¾ x D. 1 ¾) titled The Conqueror on the White Horse Rides to Battle is by painter and evangelist preacher Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976). The painting depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation, the last chapter of the Christian Bible in which there is a description of the catastrophic sequence of events that lead to the end of the world, also known as the Apocalypse. Labels on the painting’s reverse quote lines from Chapters 4 and 6 specifically; these are the scenes that are depicted in the painting.

In Chapter 4, John sees a vision of heaven with four living creatures standing in the presence of God at his throne along with the 24 elders and angels. In the painting, only one living being, the eagle, is depicted in the foreground. The elders and angels are in the background to the right of God. “The first of these living beings was in the form of a lion, the second looked like an ox, the second had the face of a man, and the fourth the form of an eagle with wings spread out as though in flight. Each of these living beings had six wings and the central sections of their wings were covered with eyes. Day after day and night after night they kept saying ‘Holy Holy Holy Lord, God Almighty, the one who was, and is, and is to come’”. Revelations 4: 7-8.

In Chapter 6, the Lamb of God opens the “seals” which are divine judgments upon the world by God, with the first seal signifying (political and military) conquest of the (nations of the) world. It is in this chapter that the four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride, bringing destruction. The first rider is on a white horse with a bow and crown, representing Conquest (the other horsemen represent War, Famine and Death). In the painting, Jesus representing the Lamb of God is opening the first of the seals and the white horseman is in the foreground. “As I watched, the Lamb broke the first seal and began to unroll the scroll. Then one of the four living beings with a voice that sounded like thunder said ‘Come’! I looked and there in front of me was a white horse, its rider carried a bow and a crown was placed upon his head; he road out to conquer in many battles and win the war”. Revelation 6: 1-2.

Note the presence of Hitler, Caesar, Bonaparte, Kings of France England and Spain, and Genghis Khan standing by a lake of fire and brimstone in the right background. This is reminiscent of one of Long’s most well known paintings “Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures” in which Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler are writhing in agony in a lake of fire with Darwin, Einstein and others awaiting a similar fate. Long often combined contemporary culture and politics into his religious themed paintings so as to bring ancient prophecy into a modern context for the viewer.
Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976) was a native of Statesville, N.C. He was an alumnus of Davidson College in N.C., and a student at the Art Students League in N.Y where he studied under painter and illustrator F. Luis Mora. He further honed his skills under the Hungarian portrait painter Sir Philip de Laszlo at Sandow’s Curative Institute in London, where he was greatly influenced by the work of John Singer Sergeant. After returning to the United States in 1913 at the age of 25, he took a relatively unsuccessful turn at being a professional artist, painting portraits, landscapes and still lifes. He finally abandoned this pursuit in 1922 in favor of a vocation in the Presbyterian ministry. His views on religion became progressively conservative over the years, however, ultimately leading him in 1935 to become an evangelist minister in the Baptist church. He became known for his literal interpretation of the scripture, preaching fiery gospels to filled assemblies at tent revivals, and writing hymns about humanity’s certain destruction and the coming of the Apocalypse.
His religious zeal fueled his return to painting in the 1950s when he began illustrating the biblical text of the Book of Revelations. Our painting is dated to 1962, fitting perfectly into this timeline. It wasn’t until after his death in 1976 that his works were properly recognized by the art world. He was tagged as a “visionary” or “outsider artist,” a name for predominantly southern (mostly self taught) artists who were outside of the larger art establishment.

I was surprised and pleased to find out so much interesting information about this painting and its artist. Now when I am asked about this painting, I have an interesting story to tell!
You can check out other articles on this unique and complex artist, his artwork, and the handful of exhibitions that have featured his works, at these websites:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Return of the Students

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
One of my favorite times of year doesn’t involve good weather, a particular season, or even a holiday. For me it’s the return of the students of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. The best part of my job is being able to work with them for the school year, or like this past summer with frequent emails back and forth, and even a phone call or two, from students interning in Alaska.

I myself am a graduate of “The Program” as it’s more often referred to by alumni and staff at NYSHA and The Farmers’ Museum, so it’s nice to still be connected as closely as I am to the faculty, staff, and students. The first years started this past Monday and on Tuesday and I served as the photographer for the class picture. They seem like a fantastic group of students and even though it’ll be November before I probably learn their names, I, along with my colleagues, I am sure, cannot wait to start working on projects with them.

CGP students work hands-on with staff at Fenimore Art Museum, NYSHA, and The Farmers’ Museum on a variety of projects led by the faculty. For example, classes in the past have helped develop furnishing plans for the More House, educational exhibit labels in “America's Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900,” and first years are required to work with a museum outside of Cooperstown as part of their first year project, sort of a baptism by fire, but rewarding nonetheless.

After two years, and the completion of a thesis, students graduate with a Masters Degree in History Museum Studies. That doesn’t mean that graduates all work in historic houses or art museums, or even at living history sites. Some start out working for other non-profits outside of the museum field, gathering valuable experience for when they do return to a museum setting. Others start their own business repairing furniture (a skill that I wish I could develop more in my own repairs), or become consultants. The sky’s the limit, really. And believe me, students change their mind about possible tracks almost weekly as they progress through the classes.

Let the fun (and of course learning) begin!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Folk Art on the Way to Anywhere

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
The following post is from my new blog - American Folk Art at Cooperstown. Enjoy!

The most remarkable thing about folk art is that it can be found anywhere. Perhaps the most exciting place to find folk art is along the highways or back roads of any region in the country. There are numerous folk artists who do more than make art; they create experiences by transforming their property into artistic environments that can be explored on foot.
These roadside attractions have been around for decades, but they have received a great deal of attention in the past 20 years or so. The most famous example is Watts Towers in Los Angeles (above), created by Simon Rodia from the 1920s to the 1950s and now a National Historic Landmark. Rodia was an Italian immigrant who spent 33 years making these 99-foot-tall towers out of steel pipes and rods coated with mortar and embedded with ceramic and glass.
Some of my favorite environments are in the South. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia (above), was an amazing experience up until the mid 1990s, when I had the pleasure of visiting on several occasions. Finster was a Baptist preacher who believed he was instructed by God to "paint sacred art." The garden was one way he had of spreading the Gospel. Much of the best art from the garden is now in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a necessary step as exposure to the elements poses threats to many of these creations.
Another favorite folk environment is closer to home: Veronica Terrillion’s “Woman-Made” house and garden in Indian River, New York (above). I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Terrillion some years ago and getting a tour of her environment. It is a stunning collection of concrete figures that represent her life and her interest in nature. Veronica died in 2003, but her garden can still be seen from the roadside and can be visited by appointment. You can find out more here.

Why do these artists create these fantastic settings? Many are driven by an intense need to share some aspect of their lives, and for them, a picture or series of pictures isn't enough. They need to draw people into their world in a real, physical way. If you have ever been in one of these environments, you will quickly realize that being enveloped in some else's imagined and created world is an extremely effective way of understanding their life and its relation to your own. That really is the point of all art. It's just doubly impressive when someone with no prior aptitude in the arts is able to draw upon their manual skills gleaned from a lifetime of hard work to make something truly magical. I'll be featuring some stellar folk art environments in more detail in the weeks to come, so keep your eye out here and on the road. Do let me know if you see something I should be aware of.

After a visit to any one of the hundreds of these environments in the US, you will forever be on the lookout for great folk art on your journeys just about anywhere. It can make an ordinary trip the experience of a lifetime.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Putting it on the Wall and Making it Stay There

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

The nightmare is always the same – I walk into a gallery. It’s the one that I spent hours installing the day before. Paintings are hanging at rakish angles, the priceless objects have popped out of their lovingly created brass cradles and lie in a heap at the bottom of a case. I wake-up in a cold sweat screaming like the fellow in Munch’s famous painting! I arrive at work in a mild state of panic and try not to run to the gallery – and there they all are happily placed where I have left them. Thank heavens, it was just a dream …

But honestly, getting those beautiful and valuable objects on the wall is sometimes not a job for the faint of heart. When I first started in this field preparators (those who prepare and install exhibits) might think nothing of blithely drilling a hole through a mask or screwing an ancient object directly to the wall. It did solve the issue of keeping it up securely on display but didn’t do much for the integrity of the object itself.

In this more enlightened age we display our collections with the health of the object in mind. As the Hippocratic Oath directs “do no harm” is the intention of the preparator, although when you are handling a 30,000-year-old necklace or trying to display a crumbling textile that becomes very tricky. Things have been known to chip, flake, or plain old break. Fortunately we exercise enough care that this is exception and not the rule. And, with the help of an excellent conservator these things can be put to rights.

Mounts are created to cradle objects with the least bit of stress on the piece itself. Hanging hardware is chosen to support the weight of a painting and make sure that hooks or wires will not give way. Manikins are carved and padded to fit the garment being displayed without stressing seams or delicate fabrics. If the support system is done well it almost disappears and the visitor is barely aware of what is keeping the object on the wall.

Take a peek next time you come in to visit us. You can join the ranks of preparators who visit other museums and are stopped by guards as we examine an object from every angle trying to figure out “how did they get that thing to stay on the wall?!” It will give you a new perspective and appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes (hopefully, without the nightmares!)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Need More Folk Art?

By: Paul D'Ambrosio PhD, Vice President and Chief Curator
Although I have been a contributor to the main Fenimore Art Museum blog for the past few months, it has always been in the back of my mind to devote an entire blog to a subject that has been my passion and my specialty for more than 25 years: American folk art. Recently, I decided to start a blog just for my graduate course in American folk art for the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies. This seemed like a good way to foster communication among the students but also to share some of the interesting stories and experiences gleaned from 27 years of working with our renowned collection of American folk art.

Once I had this focus, the floodgates opened up. I immediately wrote down a list of about 50 blog posts that could be done without even doing research. And the stories were, shall we say, often quite colorful: folk masterpieces uncovered in the walls of a Marblehead, Massachusetts home; arcane allusions to Amazon warriors in a painting of a mermaid; portraits done by an artist while he was on the run from the law; and much more.

It occurred to me quite quickly that this blog might have broader interest than just the graduate students. And so my new blog, http://folkartcooperstown.blogspot.com/, was born. Please take a minute to check it out. You’ll get a new perspective on some artworks and artists you thought you knew, learn a lot of new things you hadn’t heard before, and gain a new appreciation of the creativity of ordinary men and women across the country. You might even have some great folk art stories to share. Either way, this blog will open your eyes to the art that is all around us.
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