Long before Andy Warhol brought us pop art, the prevalent art form in the United States for more than a century was folk art, which is work created by self-taught or minimally trained artists.
The traveling exhibit, “A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America,” at Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, offers a marvelous array of American folk art made primarily in rural areas of New England, the Midwest and the South between 1800 and 1920.
In total, 77 works of art are on display, including still-life, landscape, allegorical and portrait paintings, commercial signage and sculpture and distinctive examples of art from the German-American community.
“These works exemplify the breadth of American creative expression by individuals who were not formally trained or had little idea of the academic models that established artistic tastes in big cities of the East Coast at that time,” Barbara Jones, the museum’s chief curator, says.
The exhibit is drawn from the collection of Barbara L. Gordon of the Washington, D.C., area and is organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, Va. The works cover a period of rapid and dramatic change in the United States.
Some of the earliest pieces are portraits by the most admired 19th-century American artists, including John Brewster Jr., (1766–1854) and Ammi Phillips (1788-1865).
For example, a portrait of James Mairs Salisbury by Phillips (1788-1865) was painted in Catskill, N.Y., around 1835 and features a young lad around 3 years old in a blue dress holding a stem of strawberries. A small dog is at his side.
Jones says Phillips was a prolific portraitist, capturing hundreds if not thousands of children’s portraits over the course of 50 years, and that this portrait, with its characteristically awkward figural style, exemplifies the kind of portrait paintings popular during the early to mid-18th century.
“At that time, portraiture became popular in the major cities, and trained artists were in demand. However, these self-taught, itinerate painters like Ammi Phillips met the needs of people from smaller towns who also wanted their portraits painted,” Jones says.
“A lot of the itinerate portrait painters would paint bodies of children, with a dog, a still-life, whatever, and as they’d go around from town to town, they’d paint in the faces.”
Like the Mairs Salisbury portrait, many of the portraits in the exhibit symbolize the growth of an upper middle class and consumerist culture in America.
Portraits of the Lamb family attributed to Daniel G. Lamont (1818-83), for example, portray family members standing in front of elaborate draped backgrounds, denoting a middle class, almost cushy, status. To that end, the exhibit includes jewelry worn by the Lamb family. A coral necklace, for example, was believed to ward off bad spirits, which many thought were the cause of a high infant mortality rate during this time.
In addition to the portraits, there are many vivid still-lifes, allegorical scenes and landscapes, including a mature version of “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), a distinguished religious minister of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers.
Although it is not considered a religious image, Jones says Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” not only exemplifies Quaker ideals, but underscores Hicks’ own devotion and enthusiasm for his faith. So much so, he painted 62 versions of this composition.
“He didn’t create these for the public,” Jones says. “He created them for family and friends. And it was only in the 20th century when it was discovered how many he had actually created. It’s a really important work of art by an important untrained artist.”
Also of a religious nature, a narrative series composed of three paintings by artist John Hilling (1822-94) documents an anti-Irish Catholic protest that took place on June 6, 1854, when a secret society known as the Know-Nothings who harbored anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology burned a church in Bath, Maine.
Literal in its interpretation, the titles are more than revealing: “The Old South Church,” “Looting the Old South Church” and “Burning the Old South Church” (c. 1854).
Jones says Hilling sought to document this powerfully memorable event as if reporting a news story.
“It’s almost like a panorama or stop-action film,” Jones says. “You see the church in its existing state, as it was, with the protest happening, and then you see it when it was on fire. So, you get a sense of the progress of that day and what happened.”
Many of the paintings depict panorama landscapes, such as “The Farm of Henry Windle” by Henry Dousa (1837-after 1903), completed about 1903 in Ohio.
Jones notes the whimsical irony of the oversized cow.
“He’s all out of proportion, And there is writing on him, including his name, William Allen, and his weight,” she says. “He was a prize winner for this man, Henry Windle, who was a breeder of cows.”
Also on display are several wooden “tobacco store” figures and animal sculptures, as well as whimsical trade signs, such as a Dentist’s Trade Sign created by an unidentified craftsmen in New England around 1890.
“Showing people what good teeth looked like was a good advertisement,” Jones says.
Among the many household objects and distinctive examples of furniture from the German American community, John Scholl’s (1827–1916) “Snowflake Table” is a real standout with its intricately carved, symmetrical design.
A lifelong farmer and carpenter, Scholl didn’t start making art or furniture until he was 80. “He had no formal training and never sold any of his work,” Jones says.
And that is what the artists and craftsmen in this exhibit represent. Like Scholl, they created art simply because of the human need to create, and this is what makes “A Shared Legacy” so affirming.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at [email protected].