Tag Archives: Art

Falling for Folk Art

This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.

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Folk Art Hurd MFA

Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who  wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.

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But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.

Elephants Walking sign Sothebys

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Folk Art Eagle

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Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


Salem Sensory Overload

An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)

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 The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!

As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?

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A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.

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20190929_150342-1The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by  Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.

The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.

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20190929_154325-1Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.

By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.

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20190929_152822Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.

On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spacious galleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.

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Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.

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20190929_153255The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.


The Burning Church

For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.

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So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.

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Hilling Sothebys 2Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.

We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.

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Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).


Boats and Bells

This past weekend was beautiful, with just a touch of autumn chill in the air and no discernible humidity. I spent Saturday painting my front fence, which is just about the most social thing you can do in a small city, and Sunday we went to one of my favorite annual Salem events, the Antique & Classic Boat Festival, and then to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site for its commemoration of 1619, the year that enslaved African-Americans officially first set foot in North America. The very clangy bell of the site’s reproduction East Indiaman Friendship (back at Derby Wharf after many years in dry dock for repairs, but still missing its masts) rang out for several minutes, along with bells across America, at precisely 3 pm. We had planned to go out on our own boat, but it was just too breezy, so we were seaside (or harborside) wanderers all day long, which was not very difficult duty.

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Just some boat shots which I’m not really equipped to annotate—my favorite was the Half Circle, second to last above, a 1954 pocket cruiser. Between the boat show and the bell-ringing, we stopped at the Derby Street gallery of local artist Paul Nathan–more boats were there and these really cool eyes. The onto the Friendship.

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Hildegarde’s Gardening Book

The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.

Lure of the Garden Cover

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Hildegarde Hawthorne’s The Lure of the Garden is available here.


Striking Fourths

No heavy lifting/posting for me this week, although I did want to offer up something celebratory for the Fourth, so I went through some of my digital files and favorite pictorial resources (MagazineArt.org and the Magazine Rack at the Internet Archive) to come up with a portfolio of July covers from the “Golden Age” of American illustration. It’s interesting to me how different types of magazines use patriotic themes and tropes to fashion images for their particular audiences: just the colors and perhaps a few artfully-placed stars and stripes can be evocative of the holiday without adding Uncle Sam and George Washington. For the most part, I’ve avoided the very literal in favor of the suggestive, although I can’t resist some of the “playing with fire” images which are pretty striking before World War One: the Comfort lady below looks quite uncomfortable, and like she is quite literally blowing off her hand with firecrackers, but the Puck lady seems quite happy to be ablaze. Some of the most illustrative Fourth of July images from this era can be found in children’s magazines (Harper’s Round Table and John Martin’s Book), but women’s and shelter magazines also signaled the holiday in style.

Fourth Harpers Roundtable Maxfield Parrish 1895

Fourth Lippincotts July 1896

Playing with Fire Collage

Fourth Puck 1902

Fourth John Martin_s Book 1920-07

Fourth Harpers Bazaar 1930

Fourth Delineator 1930-07

Fourth Dance 1931-07

 

Fourth House Beautiful 1933

Fourth House Beautiful 1934

Fourth WomansHomeCompanion1937-07

July magazine covers 1896-1937: from the Digital Commonwealth (Harper’s Round Table), the Library of Congress (Lippincott’s and Puck), CuriousBookShop@Etsy (House Beautiful , 1933) and the great site MagazineArt.org.


Rose Reverie

These are the rose weeks of the summer in central New England: while newer varieties of roses are bred to be repeat- or ever-blooming the older varieties bloom now, so if you walk the streets of an older city or town you’re going to see bursting bushes behind and over fences and along porches and foundations. Often red or a very very dark pink. I’m not certain what cultivar these roses are: at first glance they appear to be of the gallica variety, the oldest type of rose to be cultivated in Europe which was brought to North America in the seventeenth century. Certainly several of the rose bushes in the “Colonial” garden behind the Derby House are gallica, cultivated for their medicinal and household uses as much as for their beauty. When I’m walking down the street taking photographs of rose bushes at this time of year and happen to spot a homeowner in close proximity, I always ask about their roses, and I nearly always get the answer: oh they’ve been there forever.

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Salem was a horticultural haven in the nineteenth century, so it’s fairly easy to find out what people were growing and showing. When I look through periodicals like the New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register or the Transactions of the Essex Horticultural Society it is pretty clear that most people were more excited about dahlias than roses at mid-century, though Francis Putnam did have quite a collection of showy roses on hand, including La Reine, Duchess of Sutherland, Aubernon, Baron Prevost, Madame Laffey, Madame Damame, Mrs. Eliot, Devoniensis, Bon Silene, Bossuet, and Anne Boleyn, though he was a florist by trade. I have a pink David Austin Anne Boleyn rosebush in my garden, though I doubt it’s the same cultivar as Mr. Putnam’s nineteenth-century varietal. According to Alice Morse Earle’s Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth (1901), an even more storied English rose, the “York and Lancaster” striped gallica, could once be found on the grounds of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street. Interest in the “old-time” roses was clearly reviving in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as was the lore attached to all sorts of flowers according to the “language” attributed to them, but serious garden writers always cautioned against mixing up the York and Lancaster with its similarly-striped cousin, the “Rosa Mundi” rose, which had even earlier “historical” origins.

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Roses Collage

Rosa Mundi Cutis Botanical MagazineJohn Ramsbottom’s “King Penguin” book, 1939, with its York and Lancaster illustration; Mrs. L. Burke’s The Language of Flowers, 1865; Rosa Mundi from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1790s.

Enough of history and let’s see some more roses about town, including my own (first up) which are modern David Austin varieties: my house was a working (rooming) house for much of its life and I doubt there was space (or time) for a flower garden, so I don’t have any old rosebushes. I don’t like any red in the garden for some reason (though I love it indoors), so it’s pink and yellow and ivory for me. Then we have: one of my favorite pocket gardens on Botts Court, two very dependable displays nearby, and the particularly lush roses behind (not in) the Ropes Mansion Garden—just love these. It’s summer now.

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