Upcoming folk art exhibition puts German American works in context


Media Contact:
Chris Potash
(610) 432-4333, ext 125 cpotash [at] allentownartmuseum [dot] org

July 10, 2015

A Shared Legacy puts German American works in context

ALLENTOWN, PA--The Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley is pleased to host a major traveling exhibition of American folk art this summer. A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, opening to the public on July 25 and continuing through October 11, tells the story of the extraordinary work created by self-taught or minimally trained artists in New England, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South between 1800 and 1925. Made by artists in rural areas including in Pennsylvania, these works did not always adhere to the academic models that established artistic taste in urban centers of the East Coast. Yet, because of the large number of professional and amateur artists who created folk art in the years following the nation's founding and the sheer quantity of art they produced, folk art was the prevalent art form in the United States for more than a century.

Peaceable Kingdom
The exhibition, which is drawn from the Barbara L. Gordon Collection and is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia, showcases more than sixty works by some of the most admired nineteenth-century American artists. Included are vivid still lifes, allegorical scenes, and landscapes, including a mature Peaceable Kingdom painted by Edward Hicks in Newtown, Bucks County, scenes from Schuylkill County, and Views of the Buildings and Surroundings of the Berks Country Almshouse by German immigrant Charles C. Hoffman; whimsical trade signs and animal sculptures; unique household objects and distinctive examples of furniture from the German American community; and rare and very fine portraits by such artists as Ammi Phillips and John Brewster Jr. These works exemplify the breadth of creative expression during a period of enormous political, social, and cultural change in the United States. The exhibition debuted at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, in December 2014 and after Allentown will continue on to additional venues throughout the country.

Historical Background
In the years immediately following the close of the Revolutionary War, Americans started leaving the places where their families had been rooted to explore new lands being opened to settlement. Government policy, coupled with the number of immigrants who sought to settle tribal lands, eventually increased the size of the United States and altered the natural landscape. Settlers brought with them the social and political organization and customs from their Eastern towns to create a comforting sense of continuity. As the outposts of settlement in the Northwest Territory grew, many assumed the appearance of New England villages. Distinctive cultural practices—the houses they built, the foods they ate, and the farming practices they employed—recreated the lives they had known in the East.

Art was another need to be met. Rooted in the family as well as the preservation of personal and cultural identity, art was one means by which Americans living far from their places of origin maintained a bond to the lives they had known. As communities were established and became prosperous, many people sought tangible evidence of their success. In Eastern cities, the well-to-do patronized trained artists who had studied at home or abroad. However, to meet the demand of customers who were living far from urban centers, self-taught or minimally-trained artists arose to create art for customers or for their own pleasure. A need for art in outlying areas fostered the emergence of several generations of artists who were responsible for a pivotal development in the history of American art.

The Exhibition
To highlight the thematic organization of the exhibition, the works are grouped into three main sections (the first two with subsections).

The Fine Art of Folk Art—Home and Family
As the middle class became able to afford art and decorative objects that had been the purview of only the wealthy a generation before, they commissioned portraits of themselves and their children from the hundreds of artists who emerged to satisfy this demand. Thousands of portraits were painted in cities and villages east of the Mississippi River during the second decade of the nineteenth century before photography ended the careers of many painters. Portraits have historically depicted how sitters wanted to be perceived as much as they displayed how the artist viewed them. The vogue for portraits in this period documents the self-perceptions of Americans, many of whom lived far from large, established population centers.

From the 1920s onward, folk art portraiture was reevaluated, and today it is ranked among the important achievements of American art. Before then, despite an artist’s obvious skills, trained artists thought little of these works. Of the portraitist Ammi Phillips, the academy-trained painter John Vanderlyn opined in 1825 that traveling throughout the country as Phillips did, painting portraits “cheap and slight, for the mass of folks can't judge the merits of a well finished picture” would be an “agreeable way of passing one’s time.” About ten years after Vanderlyn made this comment, Phillips produced John Mairs Salisbury, a masterful likeness whose sublime beauty is not diminished after 180 years. The delicate execution of the clothing, accoutrements, and most particularly the face give this portrait a winsome immediacy that is exceptional in its simplicity and clarity. Other portraits of children by Phillips from this period are in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century, rooms set aside specifically for dining became more common in American homes, and still-life paintings rose in popularity for those who desired to decorate their dining rooms with art. Daniel McDowell earned his livelihood making and decorating chairs and other furniture, but painting became more important to him over time. A Shared Legacy includes one of his two known still lifes, Watermelon Wedges on a White Cloth, depicting succulent watermelon slices arranged on a lustrous white tablecloth. Clearly, he possessed a deep well of creativity and originality all the more astonishing because he earned his livelihood as a furniture maker, not a painter. Another of the most accomplished examples of the genre is the voluptuous Basket with Fruit painted by an unidentified artist about 1830. The artist has lavished great attention on the variety of textures–from the smooth hardness of porcelain and silverware to the dewy sheen of grapes and the complex surfaces of the red berries and cut melon. Besides being emblematic of the burgeoning prosperity of nineteenth-century America and symbols of the robust native harvest, these paintings show an increasing interest in the science of botany and horticulture.

The World Around Us
Artists also created works to document specific places and events or to depict Biblical subjects. As the population increased and more Americans could afford the luxury of owning paintings other than portraits, these long-established genres became available to a wider population. Charles C. Hoffman immigrated to the United States from Germany about 1860. Described as a “vagrant,” he was committed to the Berks County almshouse at Reading, Pennsylvania, for “intemperance.” In marked contrast to his disorganized personal life, Hoffman’s art is a vision of clarity, order, and tranquility. His precisely rendered painting of Views of the Buildings and Surroundings of the Berks Country Almshouse show it amidst verdant fields and hills—a fully realized depiction of people, animals, architecture and farm life. A similar work in the exhibition, this one by Ralph F. Reed (1884–1966) from 1908, shows a View of the Schuylkill County Almshouse Property in the Year 1881.

The numerous versions of The Peaceable Kingdom painted by Edward Hicks in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from the 1820s into the late 1840s might be called his “variations on a theme by Isaiah.” They explore the Prophet’s prediction: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” A devout Quaker preacher from a family of influential church leaders, Hicks explored this allegorical image of peace, tranquility, and brotherly love throughout his career. The exhibition’s example, The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity, painted between 1846 and 1848, is a mature example of Hicks’ refined vision of the subject to which he devoted much of his creative life. Other versions of Hicks' lifelong interest in painting the Peaceable Kingdom are in the collections of major museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.

Sculpture—In the Home
In the United States, where building preceded painting and handicraft was relied upon to produce many of the essentials of daily life, it was inevitable that many skilled craftspeople would apply their talents to making sculpture for their own amusement or to enhance functional objects. Making sculpture became an important avocation for many, and the effect it had on democratizing the arts in America is undeniable.

The remarkable three-dimensional works in this part of the exhibition include a whimsical bird tree by “Schtockschnitzler” (Cane Carver) Simmons, an itinerant German immigrant who roamed the rural areas of Bucks and Berks Counties in Pennsylvania, selling and trading his carved birds on pedestals; and two of Pennsylvanian John Scholl's unprecedented "snowflake" sculptures (The Wedding of the Turtle Doves). In the 1870 census, Scholl was listed as a “house carpenter,” and his sculptures feature the scroll-sawn decoration, turned spindles, brackets, and other ornaments that were common embellishments on American domestic architecture of the late nineteenth century. Observation and imagination, combined with the pleasure of working wood, resulted in extraordinary works created for the home, not the museum.

Nineteenth century decorative objects—some utilitarian, others intended solely for display—survive in large numbers and document the desire of Americans to add visual appeal to the rooms in which they lived. A pair of cast Chalkware Cats painted with a stipple technique and brushwork are reminiscent of imported decorative ceramic animal figures made in Staffordshire, England, that were imported to the United States in large numbers. To compete with these imported works, chalkware figures were created in America for those who wanted similar decorative pieces for their homes but at much lower cost.

Made for the Trade
A strong market for commercial sculpture existed in America from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ship carvers produced figureheads and other decorations for sailing vessels, and sign makers offered figures to advertise products sold in stores or for professional trades such as dentistry (Dentist’s Trade Sign). Other commercial carving shops fashioned architectural ornaments.

Patriotism has always been a recurring motif in American folk art, and the exceptional, almost life-sized architectural sculpture of the Goddess of Liberty illustrates the importance of patriotic images in the built environment. Dressed in flowing classical garb, wearing a symbol of liberty—a Phrygian cap—and holding the Federal shield and a laurel wreath, this allegorical figure recalls Greco-Roman sculpture that inspired it. The appearance of such figures on the street in American towns was a reminder of the debt owed to ancient Greece for the model of representational government the Founders adopted.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, numerous carving firms in major cities produced figures to be placed on the sidewalks in front of tobacconist shops. Tobacconist figures in the exhibition representing a fashionably dressed Dude and Girl of the Period and a noble Indian Tobacconist Figure—all larger than life—are among the finest examples made in the nineteenth century. These popular forms show that visual surprises and delights could be found on the streets of American cities and towns in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Charles I. D. Loof Company produced carousel figures for more than fifty years beginning in 1876. Horses were most common, but menagerie animals were also made. The Elephant Carousel Figure in the exhibition was as close as most Americans would ever get to this exotic creature, and the figure would have had a lasting impression on the children who were fortunate enough to ride on its back.

German Art with an American Accent
German-American art made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries employs iconography brought from Europe and illustrates the creative traditions of a cohesive, comparatively isolated ethnic group. Significantly, these are among the defining characteristics of folk art. Although rooted in European peasant tradition, German American furniture reflects New World interests and traditions that would not be mistaken for their European antecedents. Instead, it is an amalgam of American interpretations of English designs and traditional Germanic decoration. German American communities in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere made boxes and chests often intended for young women to store the items they would need to set up a household after marriage, and many were painted with designs that identify them as the products of this large ethnic community.

These traditions are exemplified by a vibrant Chest made in Centre County, Pennsylvania, between 1815 and 1825. Not long ago, chests of this design, of which only a handful are known, were thought to be products of New England. The anonymous maker/decorator distilled Germanic iconography to create stylized versions of motifs that had been painted on chests since the eighteenth century: compass-drawn stars, vases of flowers, and floral designs. This tradition was never static but dynamic and evolving, as this decoration and the chest's stylish French feet demonstrate.

Also included in the exhibition is an important Chest of Drawers made in the Schwaben Creek Area of the Mahantongo Valley in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The furniture made in this relatively isolated area also includes chests, desks, and cupboards with painted designs featuring flowers, rosettes, birds, angels, and praying children, with several motifs being borrowed from printed fraktur. This rare and fine example is signed by cabinetmaker Johannes Mayer, and the painted decoration is attributed to Rev. Isaac Stiely. Other similar examples of this furniture include a desk at the Winterthur Museum and a closely related chest of drawers also made in 1829 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The first German immigrants from the Palatine region of Germany settled New York’s Hudson Valley in 1709, where they produced tar and pitch for the British Navy. Later, they moved to Albany and Schoharie counties and began creating distinctive painted chests with decorations reflecting their heritage. The exhibition includes an exceptional and rare storage box fashioned as a Miniature Chest. The image of a basket filled with lush flowers painted on the front of the box may allude to the abundance these German-speaking people reaped from the farms they established in the new areas they settled. Other painted chests from this German American community are in the collections of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Preserving family histories was a vital concern for German Americans. The art of fraktur derives its name from a distinctive style of lettering that appears in fifteenth-century German printed manuscripts. In Germany, and later in America, amateur and professional artists often created illuminated manuscripts to mark births, baptisms, and other milestones in the lives of individuals. The exhibition includes a rare and beautiful eight-page family record made for the Laing family of Frederick County, Virginia. This unidentified artist used traditional German American fraktur as the starting point for imaginative hand-drawn works. The originality of the iconography utilized does not obscure its debt to Germanic traditions.

The Collection
The works in A Shared Legacy are drawn from the collection of Barbara L. Gordon. Over the past twenty years she has assembled a broad-reaching collection of American paintings, sculpture, furniture, and related decorative arts of the highest quality. It is key to recognize that the three most important portrait artists—Phillips, Brewster, and Peck—are represented in the Gordon Collection by exceptional paintings, and in no areas of the rich folk tradition represented is quality sacrificed. The appreciation of this superb collection provides a path to seeing the importance of folk traditions and their significant conversation with academic art.

A team of renowned scholars has contributed to the project, which has been curated by Richard Miller. An independent scholar and former curator at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia, he has written a catalogue essay placing folk art within the history of American art, and individual object entries.

Avis Berman, independent art historian and author of William Glackens and Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art, has contributed an essay placing the Gordon collection within the context of the field—where women collectors/dealers have played a significant and pivotal role as the earliest collectors in fostering the growth of interest in folk art since the 1920s.

Cynthia G. Falk, Professor of Material Culture, Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York and author of Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America and Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State, and Lisa Minardi, Assistant Curator, Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, and author of From Millbach to Mahantongo: Fraktur and Furniture of the Pennsylvania Germans and coauthor of Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850 have authored an essay exploring German American art.

Ralph Sessions, Director, Special Projects, DC Moore Gallery, New York, former curator at the American Folk Art Museum and author of The Shipcarvers' Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth Century America has written an essay discussing trade sculpture and its role in American social history.

A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated volume of the same title (cover and spine, right), including two hundred color illustrations highlighting all works in the exhibition in addition to key related works of art to enhance the educational value of the publication. The volume, published by Art Services International and Skira Rizzoli Publications, New York, is available in both hardcover and softcover and extends to 272 pages.

The exhibition will be seen at:

American Folk Art Museum, New York City -- premiere
(December 14, 2014 – March 8, 2015)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
(March 28 – July 5, 2015)
Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, PA
July 25 – October 11, 2015
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, TN
(November 7, 2015 – February 28, 2016)
Montgomery Museum of Art, AL
(April 2 – June 19, 2016)
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
(July 10 – October 2, 2016)
Denver Art Museum, CO
(October 27, 2016 – January 22, 2017)
Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL
(February 11 – March 30, 2017)
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
(June 10 – September 3, 2017)
The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY
(October 7 – December 31, 2017)
(museum to be announced)
January 20 – April 15, 2018


Art Services International is a nonprofit educational institution that organizes touring art exhibitions of the highest quality for museums worldwide, accompanied by scholarly all-color catalogues. These exhibitions include paintings, drawings, sculpture, and decorative arts that range from the art of the ancient world to works of the Old Masters and continue through to the contemporary period. ASI exhibitions are drawn from museums and private collections internationally and are hosted by museums throughout North America and Europe. ASI shares with the hosting museums a commitment to enhancing the appreciation of art.


A Shared Legacy: Folk Art In America is drawn from the Barbara L. Gordon Collection and is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia. It is supported by Nancy Light, the Amaranth Foundation, the Estelle Browne-Pallrand Charitable Trust, Beall Fowler, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the members and Trustees of the Museum. Special thanks to Duggan & Marcon, and to the American Folk Art Museum, and Stacy Hollander in particular, for contributions to this exhibition.


For more information contact Chris Potash at cpotash [at] allentownartmuseum [dot] org.