Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston, MA



American Folk at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

April 8 - August 5, 2001


For the first time, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) presents a major exhibition drawn from its pioneering collection of American folk art. American Folk features extraordinary objects created by ordinary people, from itinerant painters in New Hampshire to schoolgirls from Boston and Cape Cod. The exhibition, which has been enriched by important loans from area collectors, highlights more than 200 works including monumental family portraits, painted furniture, narrative quilts, wooden decoys, a carousel greyhound - and even a toy Noah's ark. The show, which provides an informative and entertaining look at everyday life in 19th-century America, will be organized according to theme: (left: Erastus Salisbury Field, Joseph Moore and his Family (about 1839), oil on canvas, unframed 82 3/8 x 93 3/8 inches, Gift of Maxim Karolik, for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, MFA 58.25)

In the exhibition catalogue, Gerald W. B. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of the Americas, opened his essay "Art for the Nation: American Folk Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," describing folk art as " extraordinarily popular, as well as a highly controversial, subject. The term itself is more generally understood than precisely defined; when pressed for a definition, people often simply remark that 'they know it when they see it.' Because of this vagueness, folk art has generated a good deal of heated debate among the many people who admire, study, and collect it. Determining whether or not a given work of art is folk can and often does raise thorny issues involving social class, cultural hierarchy and power, ethnic identity, taste, and relative aesthetic quality. Frequently such discussions are colored, consciously or not. by vested interests among dealers, collectors, and institutions." (left: front cover of American Folk exhibition catalogue)

According to Ward, recent scholarship recognizes that "...what is American about this art is largely that it was made here, often of local materials, and that the pictorial and figurative works usually depict local subjects. But perhaps the defining aspect of American folk art is that it embraces a multiplicity of folk traditions. In a country formed by immigration that did not have just a single "folk" class, as is often the case in Europe, a complex process of diffusion and assimilation shaped the look of objects. The attempt to understand this diversity -- the opposite side of the traditional 'melting pot' theory -- and the tension between tradition, adaptation, and innovation are what give life and meaning to the study of American folk art."


Family Album:

The portrait of Joseph Moore and his Family (about 1839) captures this Ware, Massachusetts family in life size. The Moore descendants from whom the Museum acquired the painting also included the chairs, mirror, and jewelry depicted in it, as well as Mr. Moore's dental tools and other objects - all of which will be on view with the painting for the first time. (left: Susan Catherine Moore Waters, The Lincoln Children, 1845, oil on canvas, unframed 45 1/4 x 50 1/4 inches, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, by exchange, MFA)

It was unusual for a woman to be an itinerant portrait painter, but Susan Catherine Moore Waters (1823-1900) took the profession in about 1843, presumably to supplement the income of her ailing husband. The Lincoln Children (1845) is one of Waters' most accomplished portraits with props - such as the richly patterned rug, fringed drape, and plant stand - demonstrating the family's domestic comforts.


Birds and Beasts:

A wall of barnyard weathervanes, a pond of duck decoys, and even a boot-scraper in the shape of a chicken will converge together in this menagerie. (left: William Berry Schimmel, Lion with Tail Curving over Mane, 1860-1890, 6 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 3 inches, Gift of Maxim Karolik, MFA 60.501)

Among exotic animals, which fascinated people who seldom traveled far from home, are a regal lion carved by Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890) and a delightful drawing of a giraffe (c. 1836).

Although carousels had delighted European children from the 17th century, the first American carousel patent was not issued until 1850. Charles Looff, whose name is stamped on this greyhound's belly, was one of the most famous makers of carousel figures, This handsome example, with glass eyes and ears rippled by wind, is a "stander," one of the more highly decorated figures that were placed on a carousel's outer ring. (right: Charles Looff, Greyhound Carousel Figure, c. 1905, 54 x 15 x 73 inches, Claire M. and Robert N. Ganz, MFA 1992.267)


Land and Sea:

A highly unusual pictorial quilt brings to life the importance and effect the railroad had in the 19th century. By 1888, when the quilt was made, railroads stretched across the United States and steamed into many small towns, bringing an end to rural isolation, This quilt may have been made in Peru, Indiana; the letters appliquéd onto it may refer to the Erie & Western Railroad, which passed through Peru. However, "E. R." may instead be the initials of the quilt's maker or its recipient.

The unidentified painter of the moody image, Meditation by the Sea (1860s) based his design on a topographical print of Gay Head (now Aquinnah), Martha's Vineyard, but utterly transformed his rather conventional source. The eccentric rendering of the rocks along the horizon, the stylized surf, and the somberly dressed figure create a disquieting, even fantastic image that has come to be regarded as a masterpiece of folk art.

Rufus Porter painted airy landscapes on the walls of rural houses in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts from the mid-1820s through the mid-1840s. He was also a shoemaker, fiddler, sign painter, schoolteacher, silhouette cutter, painter of miniature portraits, inventor, and the founder of the magazine Scientific American. This box, which once belonged to the celebrated folk art collectors Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little, is decorated with graceful curving branches and running vines similar to those found on Porter's murals.


God and Country:

Harriet Powers, an African American woman who was born a slave, create an extraordinary pictorial quilt (about 1895 - 98) that is one of the great masterpieces in this exhibition.

Powers could not read or write, but through this quilt she told complicated stories with drama and humor, including biblical events such as the story of Adam and Eve, as well as celebrated natural events, such as a meteor shower or a cold spell where a man was frozen to his jug of liquor.

A patriotic whirligig (or wind toy) created by John Green Satterley (d. 1882), is a memento of the Civil War. The toy soldier wears the distinctive red-and-blue uniform of a New York regiment, and his swinging arms resemble a curved sword and an American flag. (left: John Green Satterley,Whirligig: Army Signalman, 1861-1865, 19 x 27 inches with arms extended, Gift of Maxim Karolik, MFA 58.1157)

An imposing and fierce eagle, one of more than 500 that Wilhelm Schimmel carved, is one of the largest (22 x 29 inches) attributed to the artist. There are also charming carved sculptures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln by unknown artists.


History of the Collection:

The core of the Museum's folk art collection was assembled beginning in the early 1940s by its exuberant and far-sighted patron Maxim Karolik. Trained as an opera singer in his native St. Petersburg, Russia, Karolik (1893 - 1948) came to the United States in the early 1920s and became a champion of American art and a great benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (left: William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), Three Sisters of the Copeland Family, 1854, 26 7/8 x 36 1/2 inches, Bequest of Martha C Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, MFA 48.467)

In 1927 he married Martha Codman, who descended from several prominent New Englanders and was herself a distinguished collector of 18th-century American art. Together they assembled m three huge collections for the MFA that transformed the Museum's holdings and rewrote the history of American art.

The exhibition also includes more recent gifts and purchases and select works of art borrowed from local collectors. Whether masterpieces by Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900), Ammi Phillips, and other leading folk painters, or charming chalkware figurines and colorful quilts by artists whose names will probably never be known, these objects exemplify popular art forms that are both of extraordinary quality and are distinct from academic styles.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition was put together by an interdepartmental team including Carol Troyen and Gerald Ward from Art of the Americas, Pamela Parmal from the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts, Sue Reed from the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Gilian Shallcross from the Department of Education and Public Programs. (left: Mary Ann Wilson, Young Woman Wearing a Turban (Lady Wearing Cap with Feathers), 1800-1825, 7 7/8 x 6 1/2 inches, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800-1875, MFA 56.456)

American Folk provides an overview of some 60 highlights from the Museum's permanent collection of American paintings, prints, furniture, textiles and decorative arts. This catalogue focuses on the variety and ingenuity of American folk art, and includes many large illustrations and an introduction addressing the nature of folk art. (right: Weathervane Peacock, copper, painted gold, iron rod, 15 1/2 x 28 inches, including base, Gift of Maxim Karolik, MFA 54.1089)

rev. 4/12/01

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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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