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Flo Gris showcases folk art
from Fenimore Museum, painted chests from Connecticut
The Fenimore Art Museum boasts a vaunted collection of American folk art - and the Cooperstown, New York, site has loaned 44 of those pieces to the Florence Griswold Museum.
The Fenimore allowed Flo Gris curator Amy Kurtz Lansing and assistant curator Ben Colman to peruse its collection and select works to create a new exhibition. The result, "Art of the Everyman: American Folk Art from the Fenimore Art Museum" is on view through Sept. 21 in Old Lyme.
The show features a 1945 oil painting by what it calls "the living embodiment of the Everyman artist" of her time: Anna Mary Robertson - a.k.a. "Grandma" Moses. But it mostly explores works by little-known artists. These often-untrained painters helped reflect the world of "the American Everyman."
"I love the stories that works of art can tell us about the people who made them and the people for whom they were made," Kurtz Lansing says. "That was one of the really fascinating parts of working this exhibition - just cracking open those stories and telling them to people."
Some of the citizens memorialized in portraits had fascinating lives, such as William Whipper, who was one of America's most prominent African-American businessmen during the mid-1800s. He was heavily involved in abolitionist and temperance causes as well.
The paintings provide, Kurtz Lansing says, a history lesson about who these very diverse individuals were.
Indeed, the portraits in "Art of the Everyman" cover a wide range of subjects. Some portray rich, renowned citizens, while others were commissioned by middle-class individuals for their own homes.
"Folk art gives us a sense of the complete range of art that people made part of their lives," Kurtz Lansing says. "It wasn't just something that was the privilege of wealthier people, but even people with more modest means wanted to remember their important relatives."
She mentioned the piece Lucius Barnes did of his 96-year-old grandmother. Barnes, who was born in Middletown, was left only able to use his hands and toes as the result of a debilitating spinal disease. The portrait in the exhibition is a small watercolor on paper of his grandmother, in profile, holding a cane and smoking a pipe.
"Even something like that can be a really powerful testament to family relationships - that it's not about finding the most famous artist. Even somebody with less training and less notoriety can still make a piece that's really powerful," she says.
Barnes' compulsion to make art is, Kurtz Lansing says, "something that really cuts across time. There's this desire of the Everyman that still exists today to create something of beauty for posterity."
Of course, facts can get lost to history, and the names of the artists and the models haven't survived for all the portraits. Yet, the exhibition notes, "Even when the identity of a sitter is unknown, a portrait ... is filled with clues about its subject."
Colman, coincidentally, wrote a piece as a graduate student about one of the works in "Art of the Everyman": John Heaten's monumental circa-1733 oil painting of the house and farm of a wealthy upstate New York landowner, Marten Van Bergen.
"That is such an icon of 18th-century material culture that very seldom leaves Cooperstown," he says.
Van Bergen leased land to farmers, and the exhibition wall text notes how "the genteel Van Bergen family is carefully posed in front of their home while the surrounding community of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and tenant farmers is consumed with the obligations of rural life."
The exhibition juxtaposes that piece with "Inhuman Anti-Rent Murder," created sometime after 1852 by an unidentified artist. It's based on an H.R. Robinson print about an 1845 shooting of a sheriff during farmers' anti-rent protest in Andes, N.Y. During the 1600s and 1700s, big swaths of the state were given to "elite landowners," the exhibition states, and those owners then leased different plots to farmers. The anti-rent movement aimed "to challenge the feudal origins of those yearly rents."
Kurtz Lansing notes that both "The Van Bergen Farm" and "Inhuman Anti-Rent Murder" say something about the cultural history of upstate New York - as well as something about the motivations of folk artists. Some folk-art paintings were made for people to use in their homes, and the works have a certain sensibility because of that. Others, though, had a very different look and were much more polemical and political.
The Fenimore Museum's folk art collection, by the way, was assembled in the 1940s and '50s by Stephen Carlton Clark, who was a great modern-art collector and patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. (His family's money come via his grandfather's being a founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.)
On view at the same time at Flo Gris with "Art of the Everyman" is "Thistles and Crowns," about painted 18th-century furniture from the Connecticut shore. What remains are two-dozen painted wooden chests made by craftsmen in Saybrook and Guilford, and six of those are displayed here. They are on loan from such institutions as the Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware and the Old Saybrook Historical Society.
Colman had actually suggested a show on the subject when he was applying for his job at the Griswold Museum more than two years ago. This is the first exhibition to explore, in depth, the subject since the 1950s, when 16 chests were featured at the Connecticut Historical Society.
"Since then, this group remained beloved and well-known, certainly, but they haven't been brought together for an exhibition ... and I'm just thrilled that we could be a part of that here," Colman says.
In the 1950s Connecticut Historial Society show, the focus was primarily on the similarities of the pieces. In putting together this show, Colman has been struck by the diversity.
"When I started to look at them side by side and compare my notes ... it emerged that they're really incredibly distinct and distinctive, each one," he says.
His discovery is reflected in the exhibition text: "For many years, scholars attributed these painted chests to the workshop of Saybrook cabinet maker Charles Guillam (1671-1727), an immigrant from the English Island of Jersey. Yet the variety of construction, form, and decoration on view in this gallery suggests several hands at work."
As for the designs on the furniture, Colman says, "There's a shared vocabulary and a consistent vocabulary of things that pop up, but they pop up in totally different ways. The painting is very different on some. It can be flat or linear, where on others it can be very richly mottled and almost painterly."
The motifs, too, can reflect different ideas. Thistles, for example, appear often but meant various things in the 18th century; for some people, Colman notes, they referenced the Scottish king, while for others, they were a metaphor for thriving in a harsh landscape, and, for still others, they reflected the emergence of Great Britain.
What: “Art of the Everyman: American Folk Art from the Fenimore Art Museum” and “Thistles and Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore”
Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme
When: Through Sept. 21; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $8 for students, and free to kids 12 and younger
Call: (860) 434-5542