The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY

212-535-7710

http://www.metmuseum.org/



 

American Folk Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 2, 1999 - January 2, 2000

 


Summary: An exhibition of oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, and portrait miniatures presents the Museum's collection of folk art, featuring works by Rufus Hathaway, Edward Hicks, Joshua Johnson, Ammi Phillips, and others working within naive and provincial traditions in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. The selection of works covers the full range of subject matter and themes delineated by these artists, including portraiture, landscapes, mourning scenes, and historical and religious works.

Paintings, watercolors, drawings, and portrait miniatures by the greatest names in American folk art - Rufus Hathaway, Edward Hicks, Joshua Johnson, Ammi Phillips, and other artists working within naive and provincial traditions in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries - are featured in American Folk Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view in The American Wing since March 2, 1999.

The exhibition is supported in part by Jan and Warren Adelson.

The more than 125 works from the Metropolitan Museum's distinguished collection of American folk art cover the full range of subject matter delineated by these artists - portraiture, landscapes, mourning scenes, and historical and religious themes - and feature such canonical works as Lady with her Pets (1790) by Rufus Hathaway; the portrait of Edward and Sarah Rutter (ca. 1805) by Joshua Johnson; The Falls of Niagra (1825) by Edward Hicks; and Mrs. Mayer and Daughter (1835-1840) by Ammi Phillips.

Long the subject of debate by art historians, critics, folklorists, and other scholars, "folk art" is most often defined as art that is created by individuals who were not academically trained (although they may have acquired their skills through apprenticeship, observation, or informal learning) and that adheres to the aesthetic standards of the small communities within which or for which it was produced. Although they represent diverse backgrounds and worked in a broad range of styles, all of the artists presented in American Folk Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art - including nearly 60 named artists - meet these criteria.

The exhibition is arranged thematically, with sections devoted to portraits (including portrait miniatures), ornamental or narrative scenes, images of children and families, and seascapes and cityscapes. Among the works on paper will be additional sections of mourning pictures and calligraphy. The paintings will remain on view in the Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery through January 2, 2000, after which a selection will be shown at the New York State Museum in Albany. The works on paper, because of their sensitivity to light, will remain on view for a shorter period of time - through September 5, 1999 - in The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art.

Over a number of decades, the Metropolitan Museum amassed a fine and extensive collection of folk art, acquired almost exclusively by gift or bequest. Among the Museum's principal benefactors were Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, whose important collection included iconic works by the greatest names in American folk painting. Through the generosity of the Garbisches, the four examples provided below - all of which will be on view in the exhibition - entered the Museum's collection.

Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822) was only twenty years old when he painted Lady with her Pets (Molly Wales Forbes), one of the best-known portraits by an American country painter. There is no record of Hathaway having had any artistic training and his work shows very little stylistic development over time. Nonetheless, his oeuvre is memorable for its charm, a bold use of color, and mastery of two-dimensional design.

Paintings by Hathaway are rare after 1795, when he forsook this occupation to become a doctor. In Lady with her Pets - Hathaway's earliest known work - the attitude of the sitter, her herisson (or hedgehog-style coiffure), and the almost emblematic arrangement of her pets mimic contemporary French trends in fashion and portraiture, which Hathaway could have known through prints.

Orphaned at a very early age, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was taken in by a family that raised him in the Quaker tradition. He was apprenticed to a coach maker and showed an early aptitude for painting, which led to employment as a painter of decorations on coaches and of street, shop, and tavern signs. Upon being accepted as a Quaker preacher - contemporary accounts note his extraordinary gifts in this regard - he felt compelled to give up these lucrative and worldly pursuits. He tried farming, but his debts mounted, his health declined, and he still had a family to support. Hicks resolved this dilemma by returning to painting, but focused solely on subject matter of a religious nature. Hicks's 1825 painting of The Falls of Niagara shows the cataract from the Canadian side, along with the moose, beaver, rattlesnake, and eagle that have traditionally been used as emblems of North America. Inscribed around the border is an excerpt from Alexander Wilson's poem, "The Foresters." The painting, a sort of visual sermon, can be interpreted as a commemoration of Hicks's missionary work among Native American tribes in upstate New York.

Joshua Johnson (active 1796-1824) is the earliest African-American painter in the United States with a recognized body of work. Johnson (whose name is sometimes spelled Johnston) was brought to Baltimore in the 1790s as a slave for a family that was related to Charles Willson Peale, the celebrated portrait painter. Within a decade Johnson became a "freeman of color" and was earning his living as a portrait painter. Although early works show Peale's influence, Johnson soon developed a more personal and less academic style, in which facial features were idealized, while details such as fine lace overlaying another fabric received a very literal treatment. Johnson's affinity for bright, strong colors and precise details can be seen in the portrait of Edward and Sarah Rutter, whose air of stillness gives it an unreal, almost magical feeling.

Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) was an itinerant portrait painter who settled in one community and then another along the Massachusetts-Connecticut border before moving on in search of commissions. In a career that spanned many years and underwent several stages of evolution and response to the influence of various artists, Phillips facilitated his work (by developing a formulaic approach to portraiture) at the same time that he personalized it (by imaginatively individualizing each one). The portrait of Mrs. Mayer and Daughter shows Phillips's combination of radically simple, elegant outlines with an assured coloristic refinement that borders on the urbane.

Works of art by nearly five dozen other named artists, as well as numerous pieces by unidentified makers, are also on view. Highlights include 27 scenes of city life by the tinsmith William P. Chappel (ca. 1800-1880), a work commemorating the first naval battle in the War of 1812 by Thomas Chambers (1808-after 1866), two religious paintings based on Biblical scenes and a portrait by Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900), a patriotic image of George Washington by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (ca. 1755-1821), and a watercolor portrait that was executed jointly by Ruth Whittler Shute (1803-?), who drew the likeness, and her husband Samuel Addison Shute (1803-1836), who painted it in.

The exhibition was organized by Carrie Rebora Barratt, Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art. Exhibition design is by Daniel B. Kershaw, Exhibition Designer; graphic design is by Jill Hammarberg, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer.

From top to bottom: Ambrose Andrews (ca. 1801-1877), The Children of Nathan Starr, 1835, Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 1/2 in. (72.1 x 92.7 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Partial Anonymous Gift, in memory of Nathan Comfort Starr (1896-1981), 1987 (1987.404); John Bradley (active 1832-1847), Emma Homan, ca. 1844, Oil on canvas, 34 x 27 1/8 in. (86.4 x 68.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966 (66.242.23); Joshua Johnson (active ca. 1796-1824), Edward and Sarah Rutter, ca. 1805, Oil on canvas, 36 x 32 in. (91.4 x 81.3 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1965 (65.254.3); Unidentified artist, Boy with Blond Hair, ca. 1840-50, Oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. (87.6 x 75 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1973 (1973.323.5)

See also American Naive Paintings from the National Gallery of Art

Read more about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10


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