Some of the most distinctive and widely collected American art today is admired for the simple fact that it is simple. Compared with the rarified, highly refined arts and architecture of Western Europe, and the ancient productions of many other continents, centuries, and civilizations, American 19th–century folk art generally looks, well, plain. And that’s exactly what has made everyday people and art collectors since the early 20th century love it—its basic simplicity expresses the earnest striving of 19th-century American artists and artisans to meet the “art needs” of American citizens. American folk art descends from, and depends on, European stylistic resources, but the paintings, sculpture, furniture, and other objects that are included in the exhibition A Shared Legacy represent the art that “sprang up” of necessity in our country in its earliest years.
These objects were created in New England, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic States, and the South between 1800 and 1925. The collection contains representative examples in specific categories like portraiture (which before the development of photography was the surest way to preserve one’s likeness for posterity), home furnishings, and objects for commerce and entertainment (the carousel animals are wonderful and beguiling; the cigar store Indian is suitably mysterious.) There is an assemblage of beautifully painted chests, sculpture, and “fraktur” (illustrated documents) that embody the talents of the German-American immigrant community that produced art mirroring what that ethnic group had learned and known in Northern Europe. A common thread for all of these objects is that they were made for practical reasons—while they also served to decorate and embellish, they usually had a purpose to fulfill in the lives of those that acquired or used them. (At right: attr. to Ammi Phillips, James Mairs Salisbury, c. 1835, Collection of Barbara L. Gordon)
A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America was organized by Art Services International in Alexandria, Virginia, from the collection of Barbara L. Gordon. A long-time collector of American folk art, Ms. Gordon, like many of her fellow collectors, came to her interest through (A) a visit as a seventh-grader to Colonial Williamsburg, and (B) antiquing. (At left: attr. to “Schtockshnitzler” Simmons, Bird, 1885-1910, Collection of Barbara L. Gordon) And as with most collectors of any sort, once she got started she couldn’t stop. She became a regular at the antique shops and auction galleries in Washington, D. C., and as her interest deepened she met the knowledgeable dealers and the scholars who further fueled the zest for her quarry. One object led to another, and twenty years later she owns a sizable and much-admired collection of American folk art that is now traveling to museums around the United States to educate about the importance of this homegrown art phenomenon.
A Shared Legacy opens on Thursday evening, March 31, with a reception at 5:30, followed by a lecture at 7:00 P.M. Dr. Libby O’Connell will deliver our annual Fleischman Lecture and will be speaking about the lives of American folk artists and their works. Our Collectors Society will be hearing from both Dr. O’Connell and the collector, Barbara L. Gordon, at special events on Friday. Don’t miss these great Spring programs, and this fine collection, which is on view through June 19. As always, the Museum is extremely grateful to the generous sponsors who make our exhibitions possible. The sponsors for A Shared Legacy are Sandra and Joe McInnes, ARONOV, Doug Lowe, and the 2015 Junior Executive Board. Co-sponsors of the exhibition are Harmon Dennis Bradshaw; River Bank; Aldridge, Borden and Company; Carolyn and Dr. Alfred Newman, Jr. (At right: attr. to the Dentzel Company, Rabbit Carousel Figure, c. 1910, Collection of Barbara L. Gordon)
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Curator of Paintings and Sculpture