Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More in the Family

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Blogging is a bit like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out into the vast ocean of social media. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a note comes bobbing back. If you’re really lucky the note contains something wonderful.

In this case something wonderful did come back - in a message I received from a member of the Packard family. Mr. Packard had read my blog about his great-grandmother’s travel dress and quilt being displayed with other family treasures in our Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace: A Century of New York Fashion exhibition here at the Fenimore Art Museum.

The Connecting Threads section of the exhibition is a mini-family reunion. Displayed together for the first time, the four textiles in this section – a needlework, wedding dress, quilt and travel dress – were created or owned by 3 generations of Washburn/Sands/Packard women. Mr. Packard, inspired by what he read about the exhibit, dug through the family files and provided us with photos and stories about his family.

The images he sent include one of Catherine Odessa Sands, who owned the amazing crazy quilt and wore the lovely burgundy velvet travel dress. Catherine married Joseph E. Packard in 1882, which was part of the inspiration for the crazy quilt with those big CSP initials stenciled on it. Along with the images of Catherine is one of her father, Dr. William G. Sands, who is characterized as someone who discharged his duties “with great fidelity and probity.”

Catherine Odessa Sands
Photo courtesy of Mr. Packard

Dr. William G. Sands
Photo courtesy of Mr. Packard

So, thank you Mr. Packard! This new information gives more depth to the family story and increases our understanding of the women who made and wore these wonderful textiles.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Drawing Attention: Birds-eye Views of Upstate New York

By Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

Bird's-eye views of burgeoning American cities and towns became a popular promotional tool for town development and an expression of local pride during the mid-19th century. Lithography made it possible for local boosters—and printers—to quickly and inexpensively disseminate views intended to impress citizens, prospective citizens and others with the prosperity and beauty of nearly every town and city.

Upstate New York towns had begun vying for influence from the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Some places, such as Rochester and Oswego, became major shipping and milling centers because of their locations on canals, lakes, and—later—railroads. Others, such as Cooperstown, lacked a place on the major transportation routes; the lithographers still managed to sell images of these towns and villages to local residents and tourists.

Bird’s-eye views emphasize the most widely known advantages of each locale. By the mid-19th century, Cooperstown had been bypassed by canals and railroads. The village was best known as the home of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

A Civil War era image of Cooperstown depicts a quaint village hugging the picturesque Otsego Lake, renowned as the “Glimmerglass” in Cooper’s works. The settled village is seen beyond from a partially forested hillside with a hardy farmer plowing a steeply-sloped field, echoing the transition from frontier to settled farmland found in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Points of interest are noted along the lower margin of the image; many of these refer to James Fenimore Cooper and his novels.

Cooperstown, New York
Lithograph on paper, 1862. M. Dev. Martin, artist and lithographer.
Lewis & Goodwin, Albany, NY, publishers.
Gift of Mrs. Morgan Henry.

In contrast, Oswego was an important port on Lake Ontario. Flour, grain, lumber, iron, salt, and cornstarch passed through the port between the lake and the Oswego Canal, which linked the city with the Erie Canal in 1829. By 1853, the Oswego and Syracuse Railroad had provided another transportation link from the port to the interior. Bradley sketched Oswego from a vantage point off shore, a position which allowed him to emphasize the importance of the city’s harbor. Sailing vessels are congregated inside the breakwater. Steamboats, grain elevators, the lighthouse and the canal entrance beyond the first bridge all testify to the bustling business of Oswego. On the left, Fort Ontario looms over the lake front, recalling the former strategic importance of the location.

Oswego, N.Y.
Lithograph on paper, 1853.
Lewis Bradley, artist. David William Moody, lithographer.
N0345.1955. Gift of Stephen C. Clark.

Of all canal boom towns, Rochester experienced the most explosive growth, from a population of 331 in 1815 to nearly 10,000 in 1830. One of the most celebrated engineering feats of the Erie Canal, the crossing of the Genesee River on an impressive stone aqueduct, can be seen in this view slightly to the right of center. Although railroad trains can be seen on the left in this view, the canal takes center stage. In addition to the prominent canal and the main thoroughfare visible at center, Hill chose a vantage point that allowed him to show in some detail many of the city's fine Italianate residences. Many industrial buildings along the canal and the river testify to Rochester’s economic vitality in the middle of the 19th century.

Rochester from the West, 1853
Lithograph on paper, 1853. John William Hill (1812-1879), artist. David William Moody, lithographer. Smith Brothers and Company, New York, NY, publisher.
N0348.1955. Gift of Stephen C. Clark.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Face to a Name

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

A while ago I wrote about Brevet Brigadier General T. Ellery Lord and the collections of objects at the museum that he once owned. Well, as luck would have it, one of his distant relatives – actually the daughter of the donor who gave us Lord’s swords – contacted us recently and sent along a copy of the Deed of Gift from 1988. I was shocked when I looked at it and saw not just the three swords, but a daguerreotype listed on the form. I had looked at this form before in our files and can’t believe I missed the photo! Needless to say it took some digging and detective work, but I found the image in storage and it’s absolutely fantastic.

[Captain] T. Ellery Lord (1841-1886), Daguerreotype, Artist Unknown. ca. March 21, 1863- June 1, 1865.
N0030.1988. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that we have the frock coat pictured in the daguerreotype. I examined Lord’s two frocks that we have and both show evidence of having shoulder boards but never were equipped with the catch and latch for epaulettes. The coats are correct for the rank of Captain, but they are certainly not the one he’s wearing in our image. We do have the epaulettes though, so we are still able to interpret the differences in uniforms. Sadly, too, we don’t have the shoulder boards for the rank of Captain.

Frock Coat, Maker unknown, Wool and brass. N0262.1941.
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY

Frock Coat, Maker unknown, Wool and brass. N0263.1941.
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY

The collection of T. Ellery Lord’s objects is still one of the most comprehensive of its kind at the New York State Historical Association, and it certainly provides a wonderful look into the life, ranks, and promotions he received.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Life of Art

By Michele Harvey

This is the fourth in a series of posts by guest blogger, Michele Harvey. Fenimore Art Museum is exhibiting new work by Harvey in the exhibition Watermark: Michele Harvey & Glimmerglass, until December 31, 2010.

The life of an object of art is a curious one. It starts as an inspiration or creative urge, which is transmuted into an idea or object.

In my case, it has been paintings, which start in the field as a scene, composition or sense of light, which deeply moves me. On the easel, a canvas can take months, weeks or days, determined by the painting itself. When it feels ‘right’, it’s finished. (It‘s said; a painting is never finished; only abandoned.) Some paintings never feel right and are sanded smooth and painted over. They form a wonderful surface for the next experiment. An artist’s life is full of experiments. Some work, some don’t. If a painting is lucky and makes it through this process, someone may find it interesting, sometimes interesting enough to give it a new home. Then something very curious happens, it transforms.


I realized this when I sold my first piece of art, a small print. The buyer expressed what it meant to her and I realized that this would be the beginning of an adventure. An adventure that started on the easel would be carried on and be different with each person and hand it passed through. We all come with our separate sets of knowledge, understanding and experiences and we imprint those on everything we touch. This includes art.


Two cases come to mind. My father, one late Christmas Eve, emerged from my studio saying, “Michele… your trees… the leaves, they MOVED!” Another was a woman who visited one of my shows. She sat on the bench, alone in the center of the room, in tears. I approached her and gently asked if I could assist her. She dabbed her eyes and said, “No, no…I’d like to just sit here… It’s so beautiful.”

Often remarks are of how a painting reminds someone of a childhood haunt or a place they love that I may never know. Sometimes they are places of imagination and somehow my rendering comes close to the mark. I’m very grateful when people share their stories. It means the painting is doing its job, being out in the world, making its way without me. With each new view it lives a new life, with each person adding his or her breath to it.


I once heard a gallery owner tell a collector that artists never like to meet clients. As an artist I can say this isn’t the case. My gratitude is to those viewers and collectors who have added their story to mine. And in doing so, have helped me move on to the next.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Yes! It's a house made of bark.

By Laura Ayers, Education Associate

It’s my second season giving tours of the Mohawk Indian Bark House at the Fenimore Art Museum, and I still get a kick out of visitors’ reactions to the experience. There is something for everyone to learn and explore in the Bark House: fishing equipment, European trade goods, powder horns, beaver pelts, bear skin, lacrosse sticks, quillwork bags, and clothing. Visitors enjoy going inside and learning what life was like for the Mohawk in the 1750s. Sitting on the beds, looking up at the smoke holes, someone always asks me: “What about when it rains?” They are often shocked to learn that while rain comes in the smoke holes, the Mohawk would have left them open, unless it was absolutely storming out. Many visitors are also surprised to learn that the bark roof doesn’t leak, even during a thunderstorm.

Inside, visitors get a glimpse of Mohawk life during a tumultuous time. They learn how Europeans changed Native American traditions – for better and for worse - and how the Mohawk interacted with their new neighbors. Feeling a beaver pelt gives new insight on the importance of this trade item, while the bark canoes show traditional Native American craftsmanship.

But one thing that gets everyone excited is the invitation to explore on their own. To handle the objects, guess what their purposes are, and how they are made are all unique experiences we offer the visitors. From corn husk shoes to bows and arrows, each visitor explores Native American culture, gaining a new understanding of Mohawk life near Lake Otsego.

Come inside the Bark House! We have daily summer tours at 11 am, 1:30 pm, and 4 pm.

Photos by Zachary Winnie

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer" or, Crazy Object Names

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Cow, Horn, Tip, Brass”
"Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer"
To most people those lists probably sound like gibberish and sometimes even curators have to take a second look to figure out what they are. If we’re lucky, there’s an old image to look up or at least a good enough description to decipher an earlier curator’s naming structure.

Truth be told, most of us are accustomed to finding odd object names in a database, or the names so non-descript you have to scratch your head to figure out what they are, like “Tool.” Thankfully, there is a guide that helps avoid most of this confusion, but at the same time is confusing to use if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. It’s called Chenhall's Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloguing.

Bourcier, Paul and Ruby Rogers and the AASLH Nomenclature Committee.
Chenhall's Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloguing. AltaMira Press, 2010.

As collections curators and database administrators, Doug Kendall and I normally don’t need to consult this book all too often because we can look at an object and know the proper name. For example, a teacup and a tea bowl are completely different things, even though they serve the same purpose; one has a handle the other doesn’t. Thankfully, the database we use, PastPerfect, assigns the correct category as soon as we enter the object name or at least gives us an option to categorize it (sometimes we know a hammer was used for blacksmithing and not carpentry and can modify the category). Once in a while we’ll get an object and scratch our heads a little to figure out the correct name since the everyday name might not be the correct name. That’s where Chenhall’s comes in.

As an example, “Teacup” is categorized as Category: T&E for Materials / Sub-Category: Food Service T&E (T&E stands for Tools & Equipment). And did I mention that objects with two separate words in the name are reversed in the database! So “Tea Bowl” is entered into the database as “Bowl, Tea” and falls under the same categorical breakdown as “teacup.”

So why do we confuse ourselves with backwards names, categories and sub-categories? Well, it makes finding certain types of objects quicker and easier when you have the electronic database to work with because you can search for just a part or the entire object name and see all of the results. Is it confusing to someone just starting to work for museums? Absolutely! During my first internship at Saratoga National Historical Park, I often questioned the collections curator why this was done and as often as she tried to explain it to me I never really understood, and sometimes still don’t, even though I can sort of grasp the logic behind the lexicon.

So if you ever see a collections manager wandering around an antiques shop mumbling something that you can’t decipher, there’s a fair chance they’re thinking of the database name and categories. Either that or they’ve gone crazy from working with backwards names all the time.

The Milk Warmer formerly known as “Pot, Cup, Lamp, Lid, Milk Warmer,” Artist unidentified, Painted tin [Toleware].
The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, NY, F0285.1948a-d.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

PBS, NEH, Picturing America and Blackhawk's Ledger Book

By Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose three exceptional artworks from The Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art to represent a part of our national and cultural heritage in its initiative Picturing America. The project brings masterpieces of American art into classrooms and libraries nationwide through high-quality reproductions of notable American art. Picturing America gives participants the opportunity to learn about our nation’s history and culture in a fresh and engaging way using art as a catalyst for the study of America—the cultural, political, and historical threads woven into our nation’s fabric over time. http://picturingamerica.neh.gov/

I recently spent time with some people from a Public Broadcasting Service affiliate in New York City. Brian, Ben and their assistant interviewed me about one of the three Thaw artifacts, Blackhawk’s Ledger Drawing Book. Afterwards they filmed many of the pages from the book. Their upcoming program is a companion piece for Picturing America but geared towards an adult audience.

Finally we went into the gallery and they also shot some images of another object in our collection featured in Picturing America, the masterpiece basket Beacon Lights by Louisa Keyser, the famous Washoe weaver.

As soon as I know when the program will air I’ll let you all know!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fashion and Philanthropy

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

One of the highlights of our Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace: A Century of New York Fashion exhibition here at the Fenimore Art Museum is the pale green damask Worth gown owned by Miss Angelica Livingston Gerry. Mr. Worth, of Paris, was the “designer to the stars” of his day, with his dresses expertly pieced and fitted in sumptuous fabrics. His clothing was a “must have” for the rich and famous of the 1890s.

Angelica's Worth gown, photo by Richard Walker

Miss Angelica certainly was part of that crowd. Descended from New York’s and New England’s finest, the Gerry line went back to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, whose name is now infamously linked to the term gerrymandering. Her mother’s Livingston family was one of the best known and affluent in New York.

Angelica’s father, Elbridge T. Gerry, was a successful New York lawyer and active philanthropist. The president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Mr. Gerry expanded his legal attention from protecting animals to protecting children. In 1877 he intervened in the landmark case of abused child “Mary Ellen.” The incident inspired the creation of the United States’ first child welfare group - The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of which he was president.

Elbridge T. Gerry, photo courtesy of New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Her father’s good works must have inspired Angelica. Much of the family’s time was spent on their large estate on Lake Delaware near Delhi, New York. Angelica did not marry, but instead mentored and encouraged the youth of the area. In 1963, SUNY Delhi honored Miss Gerry by naming a dormitory in her honor for her help “to many young men and women in attending the agricultural and home economics studies in the early years of Delhi.”

Gerry Hall at SUNY Delhi
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