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Description: Becoming America: Highlights from the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection of Folk...
~It all started with a house. While on a trip to coastal Maine in the early 1990s, we were seduced by the charms of a small farmhouse built in 1768 and located on a quiet cove with stunning views of islands and lobster boats. The house, its setting, and the surrounding rural community could not have been more different from our home base in Los Angeles. It was that...
PublisherYale University Press
Related print edition pages: pp.11-23
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It all started with a house. While on a trip to coastal Maine in the early 1990s, we were seduced by the charms of a small farmhouse built in 1768 and located on a quiet cove with stunning views of islands and lobster boats. The house, its setting, and the surrounding rural community could not have been more different from our home base in Los Angeles. It was that contrast that may have compelled us to buy it. Our decision certainly had nothing to do with the convenience of getting to Maine from California.
Our first thought about furnishing the home was: Antique house? Let’s fill it with antique furniture! We knew almost nothing about antiques when we started down that road. We had begun collecting quilts years earlier, and one of us had, as a student, run an art gallery featuring twentieth-century prints and drawings, but we had never pursued paintings or decorative objects. Undeterred by our lack of knowledge, we began browsing the many antique shops in the area and frequenting local auctions to find pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that might work in our home, both stylistically and comfortably.
We summoned our courage and started buying, gravitating toward particular objects for their originality and individuality, rather than their sophistication. Because of the modesty of our home and its rural location, we focused primarily on furniture created and used by people who lived and worked in the country. From furniture, we moved on to paintings, pottery, needlework, ironwork, lighting devices, and other decorative and utilitarian items. In many cases, we knew little about these categories and simply bought objects that appealed to us on a visceral level. For example, we were wowed by what we later found out was a glengarry hat, Scottish in origin but made by the Iroquois people to wear and sell as souvenirs to visitors of Niagara Falls. It appealed to us because of its colorful embroidery using beads and ribbon in a style that we learned was popular with adults and children in the mid- to late nineteenth century. (For more on the glengarry hat, see the discussion by Elizabeth V. Warren in this volume, p. 124.)
Description: Niagara Beadwork Hat by Unknown
Niagara Beadwork Hat, ca. 1850
Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)
Beadwork on black cloth and velvet
3¾ × 11 × 6¼ in.
Lighting devices also greatly interested us in terms of their innovations in the quest for greater light within the home. Early American households lived in near darkness after sunset, and candles were expensive and time-consuming to produce. Our collection demonstrates the progression of efforts to bring light indoors. It starts with simple flint devices, then moves to mirrored sconces, whale-oil lamps, and glass camphine lamps, which produced a strong light but were apt to explode. Camphine or “burning fluid” was a volatile distilled turpentine product. It became obsolete when kerosene from oil wells in Pennsylvania was introduced around 1860. One lighting device we found, dated from around 1720 (below), provided a way to raise or lower two candles by means of a clever sawtooth ratchet; it is distinctive for its quirky sculptural quality, construction methods, and decorative details. Its maker was motivated not by commercial gain but by the needs of his household. (For more on lighting technology, see the discussion by James Glisson in this volume, p. 26.)
Description: Pair of Mirrored Sconces
Pair of Mirrored Sconces
Eighteenth century
New England
Glass and tin
12 × 10 × 5 in.
Description: Lamp by Webb, William
WILLIAM WEBB (1773–1868)
Lamp, ca. 1815
Brass with original camphine burner
7½ in. height
Description: Ratchet Lighting Device by Unknown
Ratchet Lighting Device, ca. 1720
Oak and maple with paint
30⅜ × 12½ × 7⅛ in.
Inscription: “D. Sherman”
As new collectors, we made mistakes and learned from them, sometimes trading up or selling an item to await one with a better form or finish. We developed a small library, studied its volumes and auction catalogs, visited collections in private homes and museums, and relied on trusted antique dealers to help us hone our skills to recognize quality and decide what was a fair price. (For more on the collection’s formation, see the interview with dealer David Wheatcroft in this volume, pp. 3353.) Over time, we refined our taste and became better at discerning the quality of form, identifying inconspicuous repairs, and determining whether the surface was original. And we learned that the information provided in auction catalogs can’t always be trusted. There is no substitute for being with an object, to feel its essence, gauge its attractiveness, and carefully examine it for “apologies.” Finally, we learned to show restraint and discipline, to wait for the best examples of a particular style. But no matter how much we learned, for major purchases—whether through auctions or private dealers—we also consulted the real experts, those with strong reputations, deep knowledge of the material, and an unerring eye.
Description: Lamps by Boston and Sandwich Glass Co.
Lamps, ca. 1828
Free-blown glass and tin
Maximum height: 4¾ in.
Though we loved our summer sojourns in Maine, once we returned to Los Angeles, we missed being surrounded by the pieces we had collected. Eventually, our desire to live with our early American art and antiques led us to start bringing our favorite pieces to Los Angeles, where it gave us great joy to constantly see their beauty and to wonder how satisfying they must have been for their makers, who exhibited such imagination, creativity, and skill. That is when it dawned on us that we were no longer just enthusiasts or aficionados, but true collectors.
Bringing our collection to Los Angeles taught us how little people on the West Coast knew or cared about early American folk art. People would come to our home and look around questioningly. They would ask: What is this? Why would you be interested in these old things? Worse still, many said nothing at all, walking past our beloved objects with little interest or appreciation, perhaps thinking to themselves that we had picked them up at yard sales.
That’s when we recognized that we wanted people not only to enjoy these uniquely American decorative objects but also to understand and appreciate their importance to the history of our country. We wanted to make our collection widely available as a teaching tool for schoolchildren and adults alike—the objects deserved to be in a place where anyone could experience them.
The pieces from our collection that are reproduced in this catalogue date from the late 1600s to the late 1800s; they are primarily from New England, with some examples from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. A few objects in the collection were made by Native Americans. They are the work of settlers who brought skills from their homelands along with art, books, and other printed materials to serve as inspiration, and then passed those skills on to a new generation. Many of these artists and craftspeople were entirely self-taught, while others learned on the job, some through formal apprenticeships. They were blacksmiths, potters, cabinet makers, house painters, sign painters, sailors, housewives, and schoolgirls. They were itinerant portrait painters, quilt makers, men with a workshop in the barn, teachers, women with skills in needlework and weaving, hooked-rug makers, and young girls learning to read, write, and sew. They shared a quest for beauty and utility as original as their experience in a new, untamed country. Eventually they became Americans with a bold, self-assured view of what constituted quality craftsmanship and attractive art. These innovators forged the way for generations of artists and craftspeople to follow.
Some of these settlers’ faces are familiar to us today. While most museums with early American portraits feature the work of such iconic academic painters as John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart, the rural folk paintings we encountered in antique shops and auctions were created by self-taught artists who often traveled from town to town advertising their skills. Their portraits reflect human themes like prosperity, taste, and style, and they provide startling insights into the lives of ordinary people.
The first two portraits we purchased were of members of the Van Keuren family of Upstate New York, most likely Ulster County. They were painted by the itinerant artist Ammi Phillips, who was active in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. He began his career in 1809, when he was twenty-one. Phillips is thought to have been entirely self-taught, but he may have served as an apprentice to another artist at a young age. To attract customers, he placed advertisements in rural newspapers to announce that he—a skilled and quick portrait painter with good prices and satisfied customers—would be staying in a nearby town.
Description: Portraits of a Man and Woman, Members of the Van Keuren Family by Phillips, Ammi
AMMI PHILLIPS (1788–1865)
Portraits of a Man and Woman, Members of the Van Keuren Family, ca. 1825–30
Oil on canvas
Each: 29¼ × 23¼ in.
2016.25.107, .106
The two Van Keuren portraits reflect the style preferred by the artist’s customers, the emerging rural gentry. They were painted between 1825 and 1830, before the introduction of the daguerreotype in about 1840. The two subjects appear prosperous and dignified. The distinguished-looking husband wears a dark suit with a white collar, his arm casually resting on the back of a decorated chair and a pipe in his hand, the other hand tucked into his jacket, as was the style at the time. His wife is dressed in black with a diaphanous lace collar, a colorful shawl, and an elaborate bonnet, all at the height of fashion. She holds a book, indicating her literacy. Both appear affluent and refined, showing their family’s place in society and reminding future generations of their forebears.
Later, we were excited to add to the collection a portrait of Albert G. Gilman by Maine artist A. Ellis. Painted in 1831, this stunning depiction showcases Gilman in a black high-collar cutaway coat, a yellow vest, and a ruffled white shirtfront fitted to his face in the Jacksonian manner. He has an aquiline nose and deep-set blue eyes, a generous shock of brown hair, and long sideburns. Because the painting is relatively flat in its presentation and lacks realism, it has a modern feel. Unusual curves and half-moons, especially in the coat and ruffle, give it a rhythmic, geometric quality, and even evoke the work of the twentieth-century Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani. We know almost nothing about the artist, but we do know that this painting is of his own self-inspired creation and vision and is very abstract and unusual for its time.
Description: Portrait of Albert G. Gilman by Ellis, A.
Portrait of Albert G. Gilman, 1831
Readfield-Waterville area, Maine
Oil on basswood panel
29 × 23 in.
Two of our favorite furniture pieces are chests of drawers, but of very different styles. One is a carved cherrywood, bonnet-top Chippendale-style high chest of drawers made about 1774 and attributed to Eliphalet Chapin’s workshop in the Connecticut River Valley. The top of the chest is highly decorative, with a molded swan-neck crest, an elaborate cartouche, latticework, and finials. The chest rests on graceful cabriolet legs with claw feet. Thanks to family records, we know that its original owners were Samuel and Jerusha Wolcott and that it may have been part of Jerusha’s dowry. The Wolcotts were a well-known and wealthy family in East Windsor, Connecticut. Three members of the family served as governors of Connecticut, and Samuel’s father, Erastus Wolcott, had been a general in the Revolutionary War.
Description: High Chest of Drawers by Chapin, Eliphalet
High Chest of Drawers, ca. 1774
East Windsor, Connecticut
Cherry, eastern white pine, and yellow pine
86½ × 39 × 20 in.
This elegant, sophisticated Chapin high chest sharply contrasts with the painted lift-top chest of drawers created about 1830 in New York State or Connecticut. This country chest in the Federal style is constructed of poplar, a much lighter wood than the Chapin chest. It features a molded top that lifts open over two sham drawers, three working drawers, and bracket feet. While the style is simple, the decoration is anything but. Faux painting was often used by craftsmen to emulate the grain of a more elegant and expensive wood like mahogany. But the finish on this chest goes far beyond trying to make poplar look like a pricier wood. The green-black faux grain detailing on a mustard ground is bold and playful, providing a decorative feature that no one would mistake for wood. Indeed, it is a creative artistic statement all of its own, illustrating the artist’s pride in being free to express his creativity in a new and exciting direction.
Description: Federal Lift-Top Chest of Drawers
Federal Lift-Top Chest of Drawers, ca. 1830
Probably New York State or Connecticut
Poplar and paint with metal pulls
47¼ × 43 × 19¾ in.
Throughout our collecting, we have been drawn to everyday objects that have both utility and beauty. Stoneware, for instance, was important to every American household prior to refrigeration. It was used to store a variety of foods, including butter, pickled vegetables, salted meats and fish, water, beer, and wine, and it was a material used to make serving pitchers, milk pans, mugs, and baking dishes. What particularly interested us were the beautiful forms of these pieces, expertly decorated with flowers, animals, and other patterns and designs, all in an arresting cobalt blue.
One of our favorite pieces of pottery is an exceedingly rare stoneware jar with an incised decoration. Created around 1750 and found only recently in New York State, it is one of the finest known examples of intact colonial American stoneware. The oval-shaped, thin-walled jar has a rounded foot, a semi-square rim, and ribbed vertical handles. The front has a charming and expansive decoration with a checkerboard-patterned sunflower emanating from an open-handled urn, with the initials “IS” below. On the shoulder is a cobalt heart and circular design, and stripes appear along the rim and base. On the reverse is an incised and cobalt-highlighted daisy and looping line drawing surrounded by an abstract labyrinth design. The side of the jar is incised with the initials “IPR.” The piece’s distinctive checkerboard design relates to Westerwald stoneware imported from Germany and produced during the period as well as earlier. The use of alternating cobalt-decorated and undecorated incising can also be noted on mid-eighteenth-century shards excavated at the Kemple Pottery of Ringoes, New Jersey; the Morgan Pottery of Cheesequake, New Jersey; and the Remmey and Crolius potteries of Manhattan.
Description: Jar by Unknown
Jar, c. 1750
New York or New Jersey
15 × 14 × 11 in.
Inscriptions: “IPR” and “IS”
Description: Jar, alternate view by Unknown
Jar, c. 1750 (alternate veiw)
New York or New Jersey
15 × 14 × 11 in.
Inscriptions: “IPR” and “IS”
Another beautiful everyday object that caught our attention was the Windsor chair, introduced by English settlers in the first half of the eighteenth century. Its main feature is a solid wooden seat into which the chair back and legs are pushed into drilled holes, in contrast to the standard chairs of the time, in which the back legs and uprights are continuous. The seat was often carved into a saddle shape and then smoothed for comfort. American Windsors were usually painted black, green, or red. As the chair was built to last, an older one might be updated with a new color or with gold-stenciled designs popular in the nineteenth century. The Windsor chair, originally made by hand, is still a popular form today, with both machine-made and handmade versions available in many styles and colors and a wide range of prices.
Our collection has several examples of Windsor chair forms, including comb-back, sack-back, birdcage, and fan-back. But for us, an eighteenth-century writing armchair stands out for its beauty and utility. This form of armchair was used by people who did a lot of writing—ministers, lawyers, and teachers. With its stately stance, generous proportions, and assured craftsmanship, the chair is considered a masterpiece of American Windsor chair making. Details in its design and construction point to Connecticut maker Ebenezer Tracy Sr. and suggest that it may be one of his earliest models for a writing armchair. The crest design, with its gentle arch and rounded, upturned terminals, predates those with fully rounded scrolls or pronounced hooks. Thought to have its original finish, it is painted dark green, a popular color at the time of its making. It has an elegant high back with six spindles, swelled turnings below the arm rail, an oversize writing surface with a drawer and candle slide beneath, a deeply shaped seat with a scalloped front profile, and a large drawer beneath the seat for the storage of books, writing paper, ink, and quill pens.
Description: High-Back Windsor Armchair with Writing Arm by Tracy, Ebenezer
High-Back Windsor Armchair with Writing Arm
Late eighteenth century
Lisbon, Connecticut
Wood and green paint
36⅞ × 36¼ × 31 in.
We became increasingly concerned that not too many years from now, it would be extremely difficult to assemble a broad, high-quality collection of early American folk art. Over our twenty-five years of collecting, we found that the market for the best examples of folk art was rapidly diminishing. Because the supply was so limited, we felt a responsibility to democratize our collection. We wanted a permanent home where a portion of the collection’s more than nine hundred objects could be displayed in long-term and changing displays and exhibitions. We sought a museum with a substantial number of visitors, adequate resources, and a demonstrated interest and expertise in American art in its many forms and periods. Ideally, we wanted an institution that already had complementary collections and a strong interest in research. It was also important to us to find a location distant from the few museums that already had large, diversified collections and preferably near enough for us to be involved in maximizing its educational impact. And, we wanted a museum that was forward-looking and open to exploring the full range of capacities that digital approaches provide. For example, virtual reality can bring the past to life, and analysis with artificial intelligence can discern patterns and trends in artworks that are imperceptible to humans.
The Huntington met all of our criteria. Gracefully situated on 207 acres with abundant space for expansion, the campus not only housed a significant art collection but also had an area that had not been permanently allocated, the perfect site to build an 8,600-square-foot ground-floor wing adjacent to its existing exhibition space for American art. And The Huntington’s location near our Los Angeles home would allow us to be involved with our collection and related educational activities.
The Huntington art galleries already had a collection of American art on display, including some folk art, and an American decorative arts curator. In addition, The Huntington had one of the world’s top independent libraries, used by many academic researchers. For example, John Demos, a distinguished Yale Professor of History Emeritus and the foremost authority on life in the early New England colonies, spent many months at The Huntington researching a book project. He is a contributor to this catalogue.
Description: The Benjamin Franklin by Chambers, Thomas G.
THOMAS G. CHAMBERS (1808–1869)
The “Benjamin Franklin”
Mid-nineteenth century
Oil on board
Framed: 14¾ × 17¾ in.
Our journey into the world of early American antiques and art has been exciting and satisfying. But it would have been much more challenging without the help of a number of antiques dealers and other experts. Our principal guide for collecting has been David Wheatcroft, whose fund of knowledge about folk art in its many forms always amazes us. We have also benefited from the keen eye and knowledge of several other antiques dealers, including Ross Levett, Peter Eaton, and Samuel Herrup. We greatly appreciate the assistance of scholars, with special thanks to Stacy Hollander, former Chief Curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Reading her thoughtful and beautifully composed essays has been an invaluable experience in our continuing education about American folk art. We also want to acknowledge the extraordinary vision of Kevin Salatino, former Director of the Huntington Art Collections, who was instrumental in bringing our collection to The Huntington and worked closely with Los Angeles–based architect Frederick Fisher to design the installation that features the pieces in this catalogue. Many thanks go to others at The Huntington, including James Glisson, the Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art, for his guidance throughout both the exhibition and catalogue design processes, and the extraordinary staff members—from curators to mount makers to registrars and everyone in between—who were part of creating the first display, Becoming America, in the new gallery. And a huge thank you goes to all the contributors to this catalogue for their exceptional essays that make the material come alive.
Finally, we thank our sons, Andrew and Preston, who were forced to endure many hours browsing through antique shops and attending auctions in the early years of our collecting when they would have preferred to do anything else. We can still hear them pleading, “Let’s go, please,” as we replied, “Only another couple of minutes,” which usually turned out to be another hour. We hope this catalogue helps them feel that maybe—just maybe—it was actually worth the wait.
Jonathan and Karin Fielding are collectors of American folk art. Jonathan Fielding, MD, is the former Director and Health Officer of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Distinguished Professor at UCLA in the Fielding School of Public Health and the Geffen School of Medicine. Karin Fielding spent most of her career in marketing and communications. Now retired, she is a Trustee of the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Treasurer of the American Folk Art Society. In Los Angeles, she is a member of the Board of Directors of TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit, and a current member and past Director of the Every-child Foundation.