Common Wealth: A major folk art museum turns 60
Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper over the course of three years. Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for more than four. Works of art like these have earned a place in history.
But not all masterpieces are so obvious, or grand. There’s artistry, even brilliance, to be found in some objects Americans used through the years to brighten everyday life – weather vanes, homemade fiddles and cigar store Indians, for instance.
Some of these amateur works of art are not just pretty good, they’re full-on museum-worthy. Tidewater has a special home for more than 7,000 of these objects: the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg.
Operated by Colonial Williamsburg, the museum celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It is the oldest collection of American folk art in the world, and includes a wide array of styles, such as carousel figures and family portraits, toys and carved decoys, even a wooden record player carved into the shape of a hippopotamus. The art contained in the galleries is a snapshot of ordinary people’s wit and whimsy, an odd record of American history in all its eccentric glory.
But if the collection represents a broad sample of folk art, it also symbolizes a long transition. Folk art hasn’t always enjoyed the respect it commands today. Well into the 20th century, the craftsmanship of common folk was belittled by fine-art aficionados for a couple reasons,
according to Ron Hurst, lead curator and a vice president of Colonial Williamsburg. “Most folk artists were not academically trained and folk art doesn’t adhere to the standard tenets of academic art,” he says.
Take, for instance, the three-dimensional wooden sculpture Portrait of Amanda Clayanna Armstrong, carved in 1847 by Asa Ames. Ames made the piece at age 23, four years before his untimely death. The work is striking in its detail, from the 3-year-old’s crimped, common frock to the hint of a relaxed expression on her face – details a classically trained sculptor probably would have avoided.
Experts and collectors now recognize that artistry and a lack of formal education are not mutually exclusive, according to Ken Farmer, a folk art expert who regularly appears on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. A 26-inch-tall eagle by Wilhelm Schimmel, a 19th century itinerant woodcarver who made statuettes in exchange for room and board, sold last September at a Christie’s auction for $427,500, three times the pre-auction estimate.
That’s a far cry from the place folk art once occupied. What transformed the perception of folk art as primitive and amateurish, and as a curiosity more than an achievement, were big-name supporters. Among those who went out on a limb was a woman with an intimate connection to southeastern Virginia.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., who underwrote the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, was an art aficionado from her earliest days. Mrs. Rockefeller traveled the world looking for good art and purchased works of masters such as Van Gogh and Degas. In 1929 she played a major role in the opening of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
“She felt that art enriched her life and the lives of people around her, and improved the quality of life,” says Hurst. That appreciation included many
categories of art.
In the amateur art that had occupied mantels, barns and junk shops, Rockefeller found objects that spoke to her. A crucial part of her collecting habits is that “she had the taste and the eye to recognize the best pieces of American folk art,” says Farmer.
In 1932, Rockefeller spent more than $20,000 (in the neighborhood of $355,600 today) on folk art alone. Later that year, she loaned items for the first-of-its-kind folk art exhibit at the MoMA.
Among Rockefeller’s early acquisitions was Baby in Red Chair, a portrait of an infant that has since become an emblem of her folk art collection. It’s hard to say precisely what drew her to this portrait of an anonymous child – an unsigned, undated painting that experts think was done in Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. The baby’s proportions are a bit off; the painting lacks the depth of a better-trained artist. Yet the simple innocence of the sleeping child is endearing.
Rockefeller appreciated art like this because metaphorically it came out of nowhere. Each object was a snapshot of a place and time, a record of American history and culture that may not have been found in textbooks, may not have had some connection to iconic people or events in American history, but told a story of the nation nonetheless. Every work of art was a reflection of common people’s perspectives and experiences, a tangible product of the influence of every part of the American populace on the nation’s history.
Indeed, all of the folk art pieces Rockefeller collected – needlework, sculptures, paintings – illuminated underappreciated corners of history. A watercolor called The Old Plantation showed early African Americans engaged in an important cultural ritual (sometimes interpreted as jumping the broom at a wedding). The small, wooden sculpture The Preacher, a carved figure with narrow, crystalline features, tells of German influences.
By the time Abby Aldrich Rockefeller died in 1948, she had amassed hundreds of pieces of folk art. As a tribute to her, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated 424 pieces of her folk art for permanent display at Colonial Williamsburg, and a museum opened in her honor nine years later.
Colonial Williamsburg has carried forward Rockefeller’s mantle by expanding the collection she seeded. The thousands of works of folk art that Colonial Williamsburg has acquired through the years have been carefully selected, a nod to her discerning eye for works that were meaningful, compelling or both.
This is no small task, because good folk art can be discreet in the way it attracts people, according to Janine Skerry, curator of metals for Colonial Williamsburg. Artists included subtle, sometimes subconscious, elements that manage to set their work apart. Human faces are one example. “Viewers have a strong response when faces are included in artwork,” she says.
Skerry points out one of the lanterns Colonial Williamsburg added to its folk art collection in 1982. The 19th century lantern is made from sheets of tinned iron, punched with a design that was as practical as it was ornamental: to let oxygen in and candlelight out. The rudimentary face that adorns the center of the design, says Skerry, is what makes this lantern exceptional. Lit from within, the face glows like a friendly beacon, which would have been a quirky flourish in pre-electric light days, when darkness was consuming, even dangerous.
The human element takes on many forms in folk art. Susana Allen Hunter, wife of a poor Alabama tenant farmer, made quilts throughout the 20th century to keep her struggling family warm. The denim she pieced together to make a blanket now called Double-Sided Work-Clothes Quilt is worn thin in spots, and the places where pockets once existed are deep blue against faded fabric. These were pants a laborer used until they could no longer function as garments.
Colonial Williamsburg continues to add to its inventory of folk art. The first 21st century object brought into the collection was a painting called 9-11: The South Tower by Virginia Beach resident Betty Herbert, an octogenarian who didn’t begin painting until she was in her 50s.
As a benchmark illustrating how far folk art has come since the days when
experts belittled its second-class status, 51 objects from the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum traveled to New York City in January. These pieces were the featured exhibit in the Winter Antiques Show, seen by many experts as the most respected art, antiques and design fair in the world.