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A Rich Simplicity: Folk Art from the Terra Foundation for the Arts Collection


The visual simplicity of American folk painting speaks to the rich history of nineteenth century economic conditions and social values. Often associated with the luxury of the elite, portraits served many functions: they could symbolize familial status, commemorate matrimonial unions, preserve images for posterity or memorialize the deceased. In emulation of the wealthy, members of the burgeoning middle class in the nineteenth century desired pictures and patronized painters who responded with affordable images. The resulting proliferation of paintings is a remarkable example of prodigious supply and demand, and also reflects the increasing materialism of the era. (right: Ammi Phillips, Mary Elizabeth Smith, 1827, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 20 3/4 inches, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.56 )

Rendered in a less ostentatious manner for these new middle-class patrons, plain portraits suited a puritanical taste for straightforward yet decorative depictions and reflected the efficient practice of many nineteenth-century painters.  Stylistic consistencies such as broad areas of color, flatness of form, and patterned surfaces constitute the common visual elements found in much folk painting. Whether this style was adopted by painters as a conscious artistic decision or signifies limited artistic ability is a topic of debate among folk art historians today.  

Folk painters often garnered their artistic skills by engaging in numerous professions like sign painting, carpentry or metalworking. They also learned from art manuals, print sources or an occasional apprenticeship, but rarely from formal academic training.  Itinerant painters traveled through rapidly growing towns and rural communities capturing likenesses, however approximate, to meet enthusiastic demands for portraits which were prestigious household items.  Many folk portraitists enjoyed considerable financial success and continued to obtain commissions, despite the competition of a new visual technology - the 1839 invention of photography.


Text accompanying the exhibited art:


Joseph Whiting Stock (1815-1855)
Captain J.L. Gardner's Son at Age 2-1/2, 1842
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.132
Joseph Whiting Stock, the prolific itinerant New England painter,
traveled in the region using a special wheelchair since an early
childhood accident left him crippled.  Stock learned to paint primarily
through art manuals and became best known for his full-length portraits
of children. His journals indicate that he earned an income of $6000 for
913 works of art, an exceptional amount for this period.
Stock painted Captain J. L. Gardner's Son at Age 2-1/2 during a
sixteen-week stay in Bristol, Rhode Island where, according to Stock,
"business was very dull."  This fine portrait demonstrates Stock's style
of heavily modeled facial features with parted lips and large eyes and
lavish environment emphasized here by the deep red drapery, patterned
carpet and fine furniture.
William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) and Sturtevant J. Hamblin
(active 1837-1856)
Young Boy Holding a Bow and Arrow with a Drum on the Floor, by 1856
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.123
Brothers-in-law and portrait painters, William Matthew Prior and
Sturtevant J. Hamblin lived together with their families in Boston by
1841. Many portraits have been attributed to both artists because they
worked in a generally similar style and in close association in their
shared workshop.
Artists depicted toys to distinguish the gender of the child since boys
and girls often wore the same style of clothes. Usually toys included in
portraits of boys were associated with the world of adult males, for
example, whips, wagons, or bow and arrows as shown in this portrait.
Popularity of manufactured and handmade toys increased in the
mid-nineteenth century reflecting the acceptance of child's
playØpreviously considered idle activity.
Henry Walton  (1804-1865)
Family Portrait, c. 1850
Watercolor selectively heightened with gum arabic on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.140
Henry Walton earned his living by painting portraits, primarily
watercolors, although he is most famous for his 1836-1850 lithographs of
New York townscapes.  Walton, born in New York, made his way to
California in 1851 with a gold rush party, but left for the Midwest in
1857 to settle in Michigan.
This itinerant artist masterfully rendered forms, color and texture
with convincing realismØindicative of the wide variety of styles
regarded as American folk art. Walton's attention to specificity and
detail was a result of his concerted effort to master technique through
practice both as a painter and printmaker.
Emily Eastman  (1804-?)
Young Woman with Flowers in Her Hair, between 1820-1830
Watercolor on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.51
During the 1820s-1830s, Emily Eastman, of Louden, New Hampshire,
painted watercolor portraits adapted from prints. The flattened design
of Young Woman with Flowers in Her Hair - the boldly arched eyebrows,
porcelain-like, expressionless face and the corkscrew curls of her
hairØis an accomplished yet stylized characterization.  
There were few women itinerant artists active in the nineteenth
century. Ladies' journals such as the popular Domestic Duties, by
Frances Byerly Parke, encouraged drawing as an "appropriate morning
activity" for middle-class women desiring refinement.
Jonathan Adams Bartlett  (1817-1902)
Portrait of Harriet, c. 1840
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.14
Jonathan Adams Bartlett primarily painted portraits of family and
neighbors in the region near his hometown of Rumford, Maine. This
self-taught artist demonstrated an awareness of academic portraiture
conventions by depicting his sister in an elaborate setting of rich, red
drapery with gold trim, classical columns and booksØprops often used
in portraits of women to symbolize elevated social position or
education.  The frame (though not the original) is decorated with
flowers - typically feminine symbols.
The subject seems to have been interrupted from her reading. She looks
over her shoulder with a startled gaze, holding in her hand an opened
book while the drapery tassel swings in mid-air. Bartlett not only
revealed the intellectual curiosity of his sitter - unusual in folk
portraiture, which focused more on physical likeness than
personality - but reflected the nineteenth-century middle-class
interest in women's literacy by depicting her as actively engaged in
Portrait of a Woman, c. 1830
Oil on canvas mounted on masonite
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Gift of Mrs. Willis D. Nance
Portrait of a Woman straightforwardly exhibits the traits of plain folk
painting. The half-length portrait appears against an unadorned dark
background. The artist captured the individuality of the woman's facial
features with stylized angularity. An abstract pattern appears in the
lace fringe of the bonnet as its folds form a defined triangular
Black dresses were common attire for nineteenth-century women, both for
everyday wear and for special occasions.  A white bonnet with long
ribbons such as this one would be considered a "widow's cap" when worn
with black dresses trimmed with white. However, nineteenth-century Amish
and Mennonite women also wore such caps.
William Matthew Prior (1806-1873)
Double Portrait of Mary Cary and Susan Elizabeth Johnson, 1848
Oil on board mounted on panel
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.122
William Matthew Prior, artist and entrepreneur from Bath, Maine,
intentionally painted in a flattened style.  He advertised in the 1831
Maine Inquirer:  "Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness
without shade or shadow at one quarter price."
Noted for his versatility of style, Prior succeeded in obtaining
numerous commissions for flat pictures due to their affordability and
quick execution.
Mary Cary and Susan Elizabeth Johnson from Provincetown, Massachusetts
are painted in Prior's "flat" style. Broad, confident brushwork, lively
surface pattern of the dresses as well as the encircling position of the
girls' arms reveal his expert understanding of paint, design and
composition. In addition to capturing the physical resemblance of the
two girls, Prior used conventions to suggest a close familial
relationship, such as the shared book, matching costumes and their
proximity to one another.
Ammi Phillips  (1788-1865)
Mary Elizabeth Smith, 1827
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.56
Ammi Phillips, from Colebrook, Connecticut, advertised as an itinerant
painter in New England newspapers, describing his ability to capture: "a
correct style, perfect shadows, and elegant dresses." To promote a
pleasing likeness, Phillips offered to supply costumes for his
subjectsØalso a practice of painter Erastus Salisbury Field.
Phillips developed a strong clientele base by integrating himself into
various communities long enough to be considered the logical choice for
portrait commissions.
Phillips painted the fair-skinned, six-month old Mary Elizabeth Smith
(later Mrs. S. Canfield) an only child from Orange County, New York,
against the reddish-black "mulberry" colored background typical of his
1820s works. This painting, representative of the history of many folk
portraits, remained in the family before entering the Terra Foundation
for the Arts collection. The baby, wearing a delicately rendered white
eyelet dress and bonnet, clasps a sprig of ripening strawberries,
symbolizing her gender and youth. Children and adults of the nineteenth
century often wore coral necklaces for adornment although they
previously signified protection against illness and misfortune.
Pieter Vanderlyn  (1687-1778)
Portrait of Mrs. Myndert Myndertse (Jannetje-Persen) and Her Daughter,
Sara, c. 1752
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.138
Pieter Vanderlyn emigrated from the Netherlands to New York in 1718 and
served as a ship surgeon, composer, land speculator, and portrait
painter of the patroons - leading Dutch landholders of the upper Hudson
River Valley region - from 1730 to 1750.  Vanderlyn's painting is a
rigid yet tender portrayal of a mother and child. The composition
demonstrates Vanderlyn's awareness of earlier Dutch portraits he may
have observed in the form of prints hung in Dutch households.  
Despite the influence of Dutch art, the painter executed this work when
the region came under British rule. American taste shifted to a
preference for English-style portraits that featured more relaxed poses
and gestures, modestly attempted by Vanderlyn through the suggested
affection of the mother for her child.
Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900)
Portrait of a Woman said to be Clarissa Gallond Cook, in Front of a
Cityscape, c. 1839
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition
Endowment Fund, 2000.4
Painter Erastus Salisbury Field of Leverett, Massachusetts, enjoyed a
prolific and prosperous career of sixty-five years. After brief
instruction in 1824 from Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), Field crossed
New England to paint portraits of rural society figures. The 1830s were
productive for Field: he refined his artistic skills, developed an
increasingly personal style and obtained commissions through a network
of family associations.
Field painted several portraits of residents from Petersham,
Massachusetts, among them the Cook and Gallond families. In this
portrait said to be Clarissa Gallond Cook, Field skillfully portrayed
the sitter's prominent brow and long nose as well as her modishly styled
hair of the mid-1830s.
The unusual background shows an unidentifiable port city, perhaps along
the Hudson River where the Cook family sailed their merchant schooner,
the "Sarah Taintor." Instead of a traditional feminine landscape
setting, the female sitter is posed before a background suggestive of
trade and industry more typically found in male portraits.  A similarly
provocative background appears in a Field portrait from the Shelburne
Museum in Vermont.  The identification of the sitter remains in
question. She may be one of Clarissa's sisters, Almira Gallond Moore or
Louisa Gallond Cook, who also married into the Cook family.
Joseph H. Davis (1811-1865)
Gentleman in Profile, between 1820-1850
Watercolor selectively heightened with gum arabic on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.30
Joseph H. Davis (1811-1865)
Hannah Roberts and Lewis Tebbets, 1833
Watercolor on tan wove paper cut-outs mounted on illustration board
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.31
Many early-nineteenth-century paintings of young adults depict
courtship or engagement, as might this one. Although books commonly
symbolized refinement and frequently appear in Davis's portraits, this
book joins the couple, perhaps emphasizing their pending union. The
unpainted background accentuates the fashionable couple's costume and
coiffure which are rendered with crisp precision. The colorful
decorative carpet or stenciled floor provides visual weight that helps
to anchor the figures in space.
Joseph H. Davis (1811-1865)
Samuel T. and Mary Vickery, 1834
Watercolor over graphite selectively heightened with gum arabic on
cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.36
Joseph H. Davis, of New Hampshire and Maine, primarily painted profile
likenesses of New England residents in watercolor on paper, a less
expensive and more convenient medium to travel with than oil paint and
canvas. In his distinct style, Davis rendered facial features with
linear precision and objects signifying refined middle-class taste with
meticulous description.  
Several Davis trademarks appear in this watercolor: the sitters' names
and ages and the date appear in skillful calligraphic lettering along
the base of the painting and a framed picture above a table - in this
case, a farm - typically a reference to the sitter's home or business.
Samuel wears a plain suit, which communicated respectability and
personal achievement during this time of emerging American capitalism.
His colorfully decorated soft cap, an accessory worn at home or in
casual situations, stands in contrast to his somber costume.  Mary
Vickery's dress expresses prosperity through the fine delicate quality
of her lace apron, her fringed red kerchief, and the rich blue gown with
large puffed sleeves that were in vogue from 1825 to 1840.
Jacob Maentel (1778-1863)
German-born Jacob Maentel engaged in several professions during his
lifetime: secretary to Napoleon, physician, and farmer. Shortly after
his arrival in America in 1806, he served as a soldier during the war of
1812 and eventually became an itinerant portrait painter traveling among
the German communities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the utopian
village of New Harmony, Indiana. He painted frank depictions of friends
and family in full-length profile or frontal poses set in elaborate
interiors or in landscapes.
Jacob Maentel  (1778-1863)
Child with Rose, between 1825-1830
Watercolor on on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.92
Flowers and pets frequently appeared in folk portraits of children.
Often these have symbolic meaning, such as the rose, a convention used
to indicate the female gender. Approximately seventy-five percent of all
nineteenth-century images of children are posthumous mourning portraits
due to the high mortality rate of the period. The seeming weightlessness
and stiff quality of this figure shown standing against a rose-tinted
sky (an indicator of death) suggest this painting maybe a memorial to a
daughter. Other mourning portraits feature leafless trees, drooping
flowers, empty baby shoes, chairs, or cradle.
Jacob Maentel  (1778-1863)
Portrait of Wilhelm Witz and His Pet Dogs, c. 1810
Watercolor on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.93
The inclusion of German calligraphic inscriptions "Copenhagen Waltzes"
and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry to All" in the watercolor portrait of
Wilhelm Witz aligns this work with the fraktur traditionØa
Pennsylvania German-American art form comprising painted birth, marriage
or baptismal certificates with distinctive, decorative lettering.
Witz, a smartly clad gentleman with appropriately formal everyday
costume - tailcoat and top hat - appears opposite two dogs, one likewise
accessorized with a decorative collar of spiked metalwork, against a
small hilly landscape.  Several objects allude to the celebratory nature
of this picture. These include red wine, or possibly Marzen, a
reddish-amber German beer; oysters (symbols of good fortune and a
popular dish peddled throughout New England beginning in 1800) and the
decorated tambourine Witz holds, an instrument associated with rejoicing
and happiness.
Jacob Maentel  (1778-1863)
Woman in Profile with a Flower, c. 1815
Watercolor on cream wove paper
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.94
Since the landscape appears diminutive, with small arched hills, tiny
shrubs and treesØa formula often used by Maentel - the figure appears
commanding and monumental, drawing attention to her costume, coiffure
and likeness. This portrait reflects the popular trend in fashion, from
1800-1820, of modish dress with raised waistlines and soft gathers and
intricate hairstyle.  
The period between 1830 and 1850 was a time of social egalitarianism,
rapid economic and social change, and significant commerce. On the
frontier, roads were built, land was cleared for farming and trades
flourished. Artists acted as entrepreneurs and brought to rural
Americans the opportunity to acquire works of art for house-hold
decoration. The prestige associated with owning artwork, whether by fine
artists or untrained itinerant artists, allowed middle-class citizens to
associate themselves with the elite realm of fashion, elegance, and
Ammi Phillips  (1788-1865)
Girl in a Red Dress, c. 1835
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.57
"The figure of this noble bird is well known throughout the civilized
world, emblazoned as it is on our national standard, which waves in the
breeze of every clime, bearing in distant lands the remembrance of a
great people living in a state of peaceful freedom. May that peaceful
freedom last forever!"
John James Audubon, 1832
John James Audubon (1785-1851) spent almost twenty years on the
monumental publication The Birds of America - a realization of his goal
to create a definitive study of the birds in North America. Portrait
commissions enabled this itinerant artist to support himself on
expeditions as he built his portfolio of birds. He undertook this
entrepreneurial task to artistically surpass such attempts by others as
well as to satisfy his passionate interest in nature.
Traveling through the North American wilderness, Audubon hunted and
collected specimens of birds as he observed them in their natural
habitat. He then wired the freshly killed birds into dramatic yet
lifelike positions to reproduce them in watercolor to exact size, thus
bigger birds often appeared bent like the American Flamingo.
Audubon closely replicated the individual markings of birds with great
attention to detail as in the now-extinct Carolina Parrot. As Audubon
proudly noted: "Doubtless, the reader will say, while looking at the
seven Parakeets in the plate, that I spared not my labor. I never do, so
anxious am I to promote his pleasure."
Audubon set out to publish his exhaustive artistic and scientific study
of birds as a series of hand-colored prints in 1827. Little interest
from printmakers in the United States to print his publication, The
Birds of America, prompted Audubon to hire Robert Havell Jr. of London,
England to make etchings of his watercolors. The collaborative aspects
of the enterprising project included an exchange of proofs between
Havell and Audubon. The traveling artist approved them or annotated them
with corrections. Havell often repositioned or eliminated birds and also
added floral backgrounds or landscapes to enhance the compositions of
the etchings.
The Birds of America was a publication sold through subscription.
Audubon marketed it through personal contacts, exhibitions of the
original watercolors, membership in scientific and social organizations
and publication in scientific journals, newspapers and magazines.
Approximately 200 published copies were bound into 4 volumes and printed
as a double elephant folioØcalled so for the size of its large paper,
measuring 29 x 39 inches.
Today, close to two centuries since its publication, almost half of The
Birds of America volumes have been disbound, often to reap the financial
benefits in selling the prints individually - a testimony to the
enduring appeal of Audubon's masterful and innovative depictions.
John James Audubon  (1785-1851)
The Birds of America, Vol. 3, 1827-1838
Hand-colored aquatint engravings
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1984.3.3
Edward Hicks's deep religious devotion influenced all aspects of his
life, including painting. Over the course of approximately thirty-three
years, he created sixty-two paintings inspired by the peaceable kingdom
theme described in Isaiah, chapter 11, verses 6 through 9 of the Bible.
This prophecy embodied key Quaker beliefs and promoted a peaceful and
harmonious state of coexistence through denial of the willful self (to
suppress participation or interest in worldly concerns and passions).
In 1827, the Quaker religion split into two factions: the Orthodox and
the Hicksites. Hicks's beliefs placed him firmly with the Hicksites,
named after his cousin, Elias Hicks, who played a prominent role in the
Quaker separation. The Quaker ideal of quietism was to rid oneself of
all worldly concerns, become quieted and prepare to receive from God,
the Inward Light which guided and enlightened the soul. Quietism began
to wane among Quakers (the Orthodox) who stressed the authority of the
Bible and evangelism, the zealous preaching of the gospel.  Hicksites
rejected this practice and promoted an extreme form of quietism.
Through his art however, Edward Hicks used animal metaphor to promote
peace among the conflicting Quaker factions. The  symbolic meanings of
his animals were based on medieval humoralismØthe association of human
character with four fluids of the body. Hicks associated wolves with
melancholy (bile), representing the solitary; leopards with passion or
sanguine (blood), representing zealots and social worldliness; bears
with apathy (phlegm), representing the unfeeling; and lions with anger
(choler), representing intellect, bravery and destruction. Quakers
thought these symbols to be expressions of undesirable human behaviors.
In contrast, Hicks included in his paintings grain-feeding animals and a
child to exemplify innocence and nurturing.
Edward Hicks, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania became an unpaid preacher
in 1812 and key figure along with his cousin Elias Hicks in the Quaker
separation of 1827. The Quaker religion stressed simplicity in terms of
education, wealth and art. Hicks justified his career as an ornamental
painter by claiming the craft as his only talent. His oil paintings were
typically given as gifts and proved acceptable because of their didactic
Hicks's many versions of the peaceable kingdom are highly symbolic
paintings with complex associative meanings. They feature symbols of
innocence, represented by a child or grain-fed animals and of
worldliness, represented by carnivorous animals. In A Peaceable Kingdom
with Quakers Bearing Banners the child's arm protectively - perhaps even
threateningly - encircles the lion while holding a bough of grapes,
emblematic of salvation. In Hicks's paintings the lion, king of beasts,
suppresses its predatory nature and denies its will to reign so as to
peacefully coexist among its prey. Hicks metaphorically linked the
lion's behavior with an ideal of Quaker quietism - denial of
self-will - by depicting the animal's restraint.
Sixty-two known versions of the Peaceable Kingdom theme exist by Edward
Hicks, nine of which include banners para-phrasing passages from the
book of Luke. A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners depicts a
variation of the peaceable kingdom theme with a group of figures holding
a curving banner that reads: "mind the LIGHT within IT IS GLAD TIDEING
In this painting like his other banner pictures Hicks presents a
mixture of historical and contemporary figures. His inclusion of women
amongst the Hicksites that make up the crowd on the left acknowledges
their importance to Quaker life and to Quaker ministry as preachers. In
memorial of his recent death in 1830, Elias Hicks appears in profile
standing at the front of the crowd, hatless and in riding
boots- typical attire for a traveling minister - with a handkerchief
in hand to absorb perspiration from spirited preaching.  
Upon the hilltop Hicks painted thirteen figures in white to represent
Jesus Christ and the twelve apostles. Three other figures appear just
below: Robert Barclay, theological advocate for the Hicksites, George
Fox, founder of Quakerism, and William Penn, famous for establishing a
treaty with Native Americans in 1682. Penn's inclusion in the painting
would have been understood by Hicks's mid-nineteenth-century audience to
represent innocence.
Edward Hicks  (1780-1849)
A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners, c. 1830
Oil on canvas
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1993.7


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