from left to right: entrance to Shelburne Museum; the Webb Gallery, containing American art; photos by John Hazeltine
A Bountiful Plenty: Folk Art from the Shelburne Museum
One of the nation's premier collections of American folk art is housed at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. The Museum was founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), who collected folk art even before it was recognized as such by scholars or the general public.
Mrs. Webb inherited her love for art from her parents, Henry O. and Louisine Havemeyer, who were among the most important American collectors of French Impressionist paintings. Electra pursued her own taste, however. When, at nineteen, she brought home her first folk art object - a tobacco store figure she saw on a sidewalk in Stamford, Connecticut - she was met with her mother's disapproval. "If you could have seen my mother's face! She said, 'What have you done?' And I said, 'I bought a work of art.'" Mrs. Webb had been collecting for forty years when she founded Shelburne Museum in 1947. Today, the Museum's folk art collection includes over four thousand objects.
What is Folk Art?
The term "folk art" describes a diverse group of objects (including paintings, decoys, painted furniture, quilts, ships' carvings, tobacco store figures, toys, trade signs, weather vanes and whirligigs), mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. These predominantly utilitarian pieces were usually made outside of the prevailing conventions of fine art. The pieces in this exhibition were first considered art - and therefore collectable - about a hundred years ago.
Many of the first folk art collectors were modern artists, like American sculptors Elie Nadelman and William Zorach, who found inspiration for their own work in folk art. In fact Mrs. Webb later bought folk sculpture from their collections. These artists appreciated the economy of line evident in many pieces of folk art and valued its artistry. Mrs. Webb also responded to bold unusual forms and rich surface detail - she was interested in painted finishes at a time when many collectors were still stripping these finishes away.
By the 1940s, Mrs. Webb was a regular customer at the Downtown Gallery in New York City. Its owner, Edith Halpert, was an influential dealer in both contemporary American avant-garde art and folk art and played a central role in the establishment of folk painting and sculpture as a distinct category of art, She became a friend of Mrs. Webb and, later, a member of the board of trustees at the Shelburne Museum. She regarded folk art as the ancestor of modern art, sometimes seeing in it modernist qualities. She organized many of the first folk art exhibitions held in museums across the country. She also worked closely with the Index of American Design, a Works Project Administration program set up in 1935 to create a permanent record of outstanding examples of American design and craftsmanship, including folk art.
Downtown Gallery was the source for many of Shelburne Museum's finest folk art pieces, including the TOTE weather vane (pronounced "toh-tay"). The acronym stands for "Totem of the Eagle," a secret fraternal organization that used American Indian names and expressions. Although it is unlikely that the vane's maker intended it as such, the juxtaposition of TOTE's silhouetted face and frontal eye is typical of the early 20th-century, post-Cubist or semi-abstract art that Mrs. Halpert bought and sold. (left: TOTE Indian Hunter Weathervane, c. 1860, polychromed sheet iron, 94 3/4 x 20 x 20 inches (includes base), © Shelburne Museum)
The carved wood Liberty weather vane pattern, also purchased from Downtown Gallery, is another example of the bold sculptural forms that Mrs. Webb sought for Shelburne Museum's collection. Because it is larger than most weather vanes (571/2 inches high) and made of wood, it was originally thought to have been a ship's figurehead. It is now considered one of America' s finest folk art sculptures. (right: Liberty weather vane pattern, carved in wood by Henry Leach for Cushing & White Co., Waltham, Massachusetts, 1879)
Sandy, a tobacconist figure, stood outside a Manhattan snuff factory from 1873 through the 1930s.When city regulations required clearing sidewalks of "obstructions" in 1938, authorities hauled the figure to a garbage dump, from which the snuff factory owner rescued it. Sandy's bold, massive form and worn, gnarled surface appealed to Mrs. Webb; it is one of forty cigar store figures in Shelburne Museum's collection. (left: Tobacconist figure Sandy, carver unknown, about 1870)
During the 1950s, Mrs. Webb considerably expanded the folk art represented in the Museum's collections. She added hundreds of decoys, and Shelburne now has one of the largest and most extensive collections of decoys in the country. One of the finest examples of these is A. Elmer Crowell's Black Duck, a preening creature with beautifully detailed tail feathers and a finely shaped head. (right: Black Duck, carved in wood by Anthony Elmer Crowell, East Harwich, Massachusetts, about 1920)
One of Shelburne Museum's most renowned collections is that of 18th- and 19th-century American quilts. Today there are over four hundred, of which one of the finest is the Major Ringgold Album Quilt. (left: Major Ringgold Album Quilt, maker unknown, Baltimore, Maryland, cotton, about 1846)
Today, visitors come from all over the world to see Shelburne Museum's folk art collections by artists and makers, known and anonymous. They provide an enduring link to our past and a significant window into 18th- and 19th-century American art and culture.
From the exhibition
Master carver Daniel Muller's tiger is one of forty-four superb animals from a complete carousel made by the Dentzel Company and now at Shelburne Museum. During a fifty-year period beginning in the 1870s, the Dentzel Carousel Company made some of the finest carousels. The figures from the museum's carousel survive with their original paint, a rare occurrence as carousels were often repainted as part of routine maintenance. The museum's carousel was originally built a hundred years ago for the Sacandaga Amusement Park at the end of the rail line in Northville, New York. It was owned by the Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad Co; railroads often established such parks to attract passengers. (left: Tiger Carousel Figure, Carved by Daniel Muller (1872-1952), Gustav Dentzel Carousel Company (1867-1928), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, About 1902, Carved and painted wood, Shelburne Museum, purchased from the antiques dealers Jones & Erwin, 1952 FC-7)
In Dentzel's large workshop, several carvers worked on different parts of an animal, but the master carver in this case, Daniel Muller, always carved the head and did much of the detailed finishing work. Daniel Muller was the most gifted of Dentzel's carvers and designed and drew the patterns for many of the figures.
In 1952 when the Dentzel carousel was first offered to Mrs. Webb for the museum, she initially feared a carousel (any carousel) might not be good enough for the collection. But, as she later related, she had a dream about her family enjoying a carousel ride, and so purchased it. Visitors have enjoyed it ever since, but it is not ridden.
In quilt making the term "crazy patchwork" ("crazy quilt" for short) refers to piecing together randomly shaped pieces of fabric and embellishing them with embroidered and appliquéd motifs. When making this crazy quilt, Delphia Haskins chose plain and printed cotton fabrics for her quilt blocks, rather than the typical silk satin and velvets, and decorated each of the forty-two blocks with a different appliquéd figure. Human figures - a mother and child, a man, and two images of Abraham Lincoln - were interspersed with common barnyard animals as well as less familiar creatures such as moose, mountain lions, camels and giraffes. The motifs were probably adapted from popular magazines and books. (left: Haskins Crazy Quilt, Delphia Ann Noice Haskins (Mrs. Samuel Glover Haskins) (1816-1992), Rochester, Vermont, 1870-1880, Cotton, pieced, appliquéd and embroidered, Shelburne Museum, purchased from Mrs. John Fairchild, 1956, 1956-648; 10-215)
At the time this quilt was made, Delphia Haskins and her husband, Samuel, were living in Rochester, Vermont, and operating a tailoring business with their seven daughters. It is likely that Delphia made this quilt as a wedding present for her daughter, Ada, who was married in 1877. Two other appliquéd crazy quilts, almost identical to this one, are still owned by members of the Haskins family and were probably made for other daughters.
This portrait was painted after its subject had died; the portraitist, Joseph Whiting Stock, recorded in his journal that he was commissioned to paint the portrait of the "Henrietta Russell corpse..." for $16. This was not an unusual practice in an age when many young children died before reaching maturity. For grieving parents the portrait would be the only visual record of their child. (left: Jane Henrietta Russell, Joseph Whiting Stock, (1815-1855), Signed on back, J. W. Stock/1844, Springfield, Massachusetts, oil on canvas, Shelburne Museum, purchased from Maxim Karolik, 1959, 27.1.1-129)
Like many 19th-century artists, Stock traveled from town to town in search of business. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, he painted almost a thousand portraits of individuals from all over New England. By painting the carpeted floor so that it appears more vertical than horizontal, Stock seems to reject the convention of three-dimensional illusionism. However, the rest of this highly detailed picture is painted with a strong interest in depth and perspective.
The face of this figure is a portrait of the professional wood carver Samuel Robb (1851-1928), whose New York City workshop was one of the most prolific producers of cigar store figures. Robb's manufactory flourished between about 1875 and 1910, making what were then called "show figures" to stand outside storefronts advertising tobacco products. (left: Tobacconist Figure, Samuel Robb as "Captain Jinks," Carved by Thomas J. White in the New York City workshop of Samuel Robb, About 1879, carved, painted wood, Shelburne Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Choate, 1959, FT-35)
In the late 1870s when this figure was made, Captain Jinks was a character from a popular Civil War song, "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines," which mocked the captain's laziness in the army. This figure was carved by craftsman Thomas White (1825-1902), who created a portrait of his boss, Samuel Robb. The figure wears the uniform of the National Guard, which Robb had joined in 1879. White worked in the Robb shop off and on for more than twenty years, beginning in 1876.
The vane is thought to be a representation of Pisces from the sign of the Zodiac, which is symbolized here by two fish swimming in opposite directions. The simplicity of the forms and their symmetry are the striking visual qualities that probably led Electra Webb to buy it. (left: Pisces Weather Vane, Maker unknown, Late 19th century, painted metal, Shelburne Museum, purchased from Edith Halpert, Downtown Gallery, 1951 FW-33)
By the time that Edith Halpert sold this vane to Mrs. Webb in 1951, she had been dealing in folk art for over twenty years. In the 1930s Halpert had organized the first folk art exhibitions that traveled throughout the country and in 1935 helped to launch the Index of American Design, a Federal government program to create a permanent record of outstanding American design and craftsmanship, including folk art.
Edith Halpert died in 1970, but her business records survive at the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. and provide researchers with insight into her role as a dealer and connoisseur. Among her papers are catalog pages which include historical information about objects as well as where they came from and the amount she paid for them. According to the records, Halpert purchased this vane in March 1951 and sold it to Electra Webb for the Shelburne Museum in May the same year.
These six figures in medieval style clothes are from a set of nine pins, an indoor bowling game popular in 19th century Europe and America. In the 1930s when folk art collecting was still new, Nine Pins became a celebrated sculpture. It was once part of a notable collection belonging to Juliana Force who was the founding director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1931 Nine Pins was included in the first folk art exhibition ever held at an American art museum, at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. Nine Pins was also recorded in a 1937 watercolor for the Index of American Design, a program of the federal government's Works Progress Administration intended to create a permanent record of outstanding American design and craftsmanship, including folk art. (left: Nine Pins, Maker unknown, 19th century, carved and painted wood, Shelburne Museum, purchased by Mrs. Webb from Edith Halpert, Downtown Gallery, 1941, FM-6)
Fifty years ago, folk art dealer Edith Halpert described this vane's balance of design and movement as "remarkable" and its spatial relationships as "extraordinary, comparable to the best in modern art." The sculpture's dramatic silhouette portrays a centaur, one of the race of mythological beasts, followers of Dionysius, who were half man, half horse. Though known generally for their great strength and even savagery, some, such as the centaur Chiron, became the friends and teachers of men. (left: Centaur Weathervane, Attributed to A. L. Jewell & Co., Waltham, Massachusetts (1852-67), Found near New Haven, Connecticut, Late 19th century, copper, Shelburne Museum, purchased from Edith Halpert, Downtown Gallery, 1950, FW-3)
The original figure of "Uncle Sam" was invented during the War of 1812. Samuel Wilson (1766-1854), owner of a meat packing business in Troy, New York, began labeling crates of meat bound for the army with "U. S." an abbreviation for United States. One of his employees mistakenly thought it stood for Uncle Sam, which was Samuel Wilson's nickname. The army perpetuated the error and before long soldiers were calling all government-issued supplies property of Uncle Sam. They even saw themselves as Uncle Sam's men. (left: Trade Sign: Eagle on Uncle Sam's Hat, Inscribed, "Eagle House US," Maker unknown, Late 19th century, carved and painted wood, Shelburne Museum, purchased, 1965, FE-72)
The first Uncle Sam illustrations appeared in New England newspapers in 1820. Over time, the image became more elaborate, and during Abraham Lincoln's term stars and stripes were added to the top hat. This trade sign originated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it is said to have been used outside a boarding house.
The curators for the exhibition are Henry Joyce, Curator of Art and Director of Exhibitions for the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, and Sloane Susanne Stephens, Managing Curator, Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.
Mr. Joyce's lectures and scholarly papers have been presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Frick Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, plus other venues. Publications and selected exhibitions include: Kykuit Guidebook, published by Historic Hudson Valley Press (1994);"Museum-University Partnerships", from Museums and Universities, Macmillan (1990); "Splendid Innovation - 18th-Century French Design", Exhibition Catalogue, Hyde Collection, Glen Falls (1986); "The English Baroque", Art & Antiques (1983); "Covent Garden & Bloomsbury", Exhibition and Publication (1975); Woburn Abbey Guidebook, published by Messrs. Jarold & Company (1974).
Sloane Susanne Stephens has served the Shelburne Museum since 1991, first as an intern and then as a member of the professional staff. Stephens is author of "Electra Havemeyer Webb and the Shelburne Museum's Print Collection," Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society, and has given presentations at the Heritage Plantation, Sandwich, Ma and the Newport Historical Society in Rhode Island.
A Bountiful Plenty was organized by the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. The tour is organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington, D.C. After the closing of this exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art on February 4, 2001, the exhibition will travel to Georgia Museum of Art (May 12 - July 1, 2001), Fresno Metropolitan Museum (July 19 - September 9, 2001), Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (September 29, 2001 - January 13, 2002), and Speed Art Museum (February 19 - April 14, 2002).
Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Shelburne Museum
Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11
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