A century of U.S. history can be gleaned from the early American folk art on view in A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, opening on December 14, 2014 at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square/Columbus Avenue at 66th street), the first venue for a national touring exhibition. More than 60 artworks made between 1800 and 1920 will be on view, including portraits; still-life, landscape, and allegorical paintings; commercial and highly personal sculptures; and distinctive examples of furniture. Imbued with beauty, skill, and meaning beyond their actual purpose, many of the works also capture and document little-known moments in American history from a unique first-person perspective.

Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director, commented: “Self-taught artists, working in all corners of the country, brought news of importance to public attention through works of art that are today prized not only for their aesthetic attributes, but because they are valuable conveyors of history. We are so pleased to bring this exhibition to museum audiences.”

Major support for the presentation at the American Folk Art Museum is provided by HISTORY®

The works in this exhibition have been gathered with an eye to quality and rarity, and a sensitivity toward the ways in which folk art encodes and reveals a changing America, whether in fashion and other mores, technology, social structure, private life, or public events. They also represent a highly personal stake in an experimental form of government, one that demanded an unprecedented level of participation on the part of each individual. In the early years of nationhood, the weight of this responsibility engendered a new and singular approach to visual expression; self-taught artists helped to form an American visual identity that is much in evidence in A Shared Legacy. In addition to personal events and experiences, American folk art also commemorates shared moments of national significance, whether celebratory or catastrophic. The artworks on view in A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America are inherent acknowledgements of the artist’s, and the viewer’s, relationship to a shared past.

Highlights of A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America

Many of the portraits on view signal the rise of America’s middle class and consumer culture through the 19th century. A group of paintings (all c. 1852) attributed to Daniel G. Lamont (1818–1883) portrays Clara Adeline Lamb, Josiah Quincy Lamb, and their daughter, Emily Avesta Bisco Lamb. The Lamb family members are surrounded by drapery, furniture, architectural elements, carpets, and patterned fabrics intended to convey and reinforce their status and material comfort. Astonishingly, much of the jewelry worn by Mrs. Lamb and her daughter in these portraits is also on view in the exhibition, including the child’s coral necklace (thought to have protective qualities at a time when childhood mortality was high). Ammi Phillips’s (1788–1865) portrait of James Mairs Salisbury is one of the most lovely depictions of a child in early America. Over a period of more than 50 years, Phillips incisively captured the faces of America in hundreds, possibly thousands of canvases.

Little Frances Coffin was painted around 1830 by the artist Sara Gardner (1799–1862), a descendant of one of the first families of settlers in Nantucket, who contributed to the island’s success as a center of the U.S. whaling industry in the 17th century. Gardner, whose father was lost at sea a year after her birth, was talented, resourceful, and independent—this last, a quality shared by women of Nantucket who managed the affairs of home and community while men were on extended, years-long whaling voyages. Gardner’s artistry helped provide income for her family. It was said that her “talent for ‘catching a likeness’ was so wonderful that many wealthy people employed her to paint portraits of their children and themselves.” (Nantucket Historical Association, 1912 proceedings).

Anti-Irish Catholic sentiment, a scourge of the early 1800s, is the subject of a narrative series of three paintings by John Hilling (1822–1894): The Old South Church, Looting the Old South Church, and Burning the Old South Church (all c. 1854). The paintings—vitally important documents created before news media dominated American households—portray the events of June 6, 1854, when the Know- Nothings, a secret society and political faction, acted out their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology by attacking and ultimately burning to the ground a church in Bath, Maine. The previous July, daguerreotypist George N. Barnard had created what are considered to be the earliest news photographs made in the U.S. Hilling and Barnard were early champions of the importance of documenting powerfully dramatic events.

James Bard (1815–1897) specialized in paintings of steamboats and other vessels of his era, working closely with ship owners to gather precise data for his accurately scaled renderings. Bard was especially fascinated by the majestic steamboats that plied the Hudson River and connected heartland producers with New York’s thriving markets and international ports. Bard’s painting of the 180-foot, 487-ton steamboat Victoria (c. 1859) may be the only remaining evidence of a ship (constructed in Mystic, Connecticut) that was seized by the Confederacy during the Civil War; used to run blockades and deliver munitions; then set afire so as not to fall into enemy hands when Union forces took control of Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana.

The USS Missouri—among the first ships propelled by steam power to enter service in the U.S. Navy—sailed from Norfolk, VA, on August 5, 1843, carrying the U.S. Minister to China, Caleb Cushing, on a diplomatic mission. A fire broke out while the ship was docked in Gibraltar, fed by hemp, turpentine, and paints, and soon raged out of control. The crew and passengers were ultimately rescued by local residents, and the scene, one of human desperation and struggle, was sensationalized in lithographs and sold to a fascinated public. Jurgan Frederick Huge (1809–1878), a German immigrant living in Bridgeport, CT., (a center of commerce in its day, due to its location on the Long Island Sound and its proximity to New York), painted the scene from those lithographs, but instead focused on the proud ship, the spectacular fire, and the exotic and monumental setting. Conflagration of the U.S. Steam Frigate “Missouri” is a highlight of the exhibition.

Three carved figures tell very different stories while providing sheer delight. Girl of the Period, made between 1870 and 1885 (attributed to the workshop of Samuel Robb), visually satirizes a type of vain female described by British anti-feminist Eliza Lynn Litton in an essay she wrote for the London Saturday Review: “a creature who dyes her hair and paints her face, as the first articles of her personal religion—a creature whose sole idea of life is fun; whose sole aim is unbounded luxury; and whose dress is the chief object of such thought and intellect as she possesses.” The carving, which stands 6’ 6” tall and portrays a beautiful and curvaceous young woman who flaunts a cigar, is also an early example of the use of a woman’s image in advertising. It is easy to envision her impact at the door of a 19th-century tobacconist’s shop. An imaginative counterpart is a reference to a type of dandy defined by Booth Tarkington. The carving (made by an unidentified artist, 1885-1900) portrays a dude, a radically stylish and fastidiously dressed young urban male of the early 1880s. (The word “dude” is now synonymous with other male archetypes: ranch hands, cowboys, surfers, snowboarders, and a character immortalized by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen). An enchanting, endearing elephant on view (c. 1882, attributed to the shop of Charles I.D. Looff), was once part of the carousel at Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, located between 126th and 127th Streets and Second Avenue at the Harlem River—one of New York’s most popular entertainment venues in its day.