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Monday, November 20, 2017

For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

BY JUDITH A. BARTER
AND MONICA OBNISKI

Fig. 1: Bedcover (The Circuit Rider’s Quilt), ca. 1862, Miami, Ohio. Cotton, pieced plain weave; quilted with cotton yarn; appliquéd and reverse appliquéd with cotton and wool, plain weaves; some roller-printed; embroidered with cotton and gilt-metal-strip-wrapped cotton in chain stitches; laidwork and couching; signatures in sepia ink; edged with cotton 2:2 twill weave; backed with cotton, plain weave. H. 85¾, W. 95 in. Gift of Emma B. Hodge (1919.535).

Fig. 2: Rug, 1850–1900. Jute, plain weave with cotton and wool yarns; felted, knitted, and woven strips forming “hooked” pile; edged with cotton and wool, oblique interlacing. H. 71⅝, W. 75 in. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne (1952.179).
Fig. 3: Rudolph Drach (1759–after 1814), plate, 1792, Bedminster, Penn. Redware. Diam. 115⁄16, D. 1⅞ in. Field Museum Exchange (1907.122).

The new installation of the Grainger Gallery of Folk Art at the Art Institute of Chicago opened in August 2009 in a renovated gallery space that wraps around the historic Ryerson and Burnham library in the original 1893 building of the museum. Endowed by David and Juli Grainger, the reinstallation of the collection prompted a re-assessment of the museum’s American folk art collection and provided the opportunity for new research and a publication, also funded by the Grainger Foundation. For Kith and Kin is the first publication to document the growth of folk art collecting in Chicago and at the Art Institute during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Over sixty objects are illustrated with short essays accompanying each entry. An essay on the collecting of folk art in Chicago describes the previously unpublished history of the collection’s origins and growth.

Fig. 4: Weathervane, 1800–60, Pennsylvania. Iron. H. 51⅞, W. 28, D. 1 in. Bequest of Elizabeth R. Vaughan (1952.549).

Fig. 5: Wardrobe (Schrank), ca. 1790, Berks County, Penn. Tulipwood, brass, iron, and painted decoration. H. 80, W. 69½, D. 22¼ in. Elizabeth R. Vaughan Fund (1956.761).

Fig. 6: Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), 1821–1822. Oil on canvas, 33 x 27½ inches. Gift of Robert Allerton (1946.394). (This is one of a pair of portraits.)
Two early collectors of folk art, Emma Blanxius Hodge and the Reverend Frank Wakely Gunsaulus collected pottery in the 1890s. Hodge and her sister, Jene E. Bell, assembled an extensive collection of over one thousand pieces of American and English ceramics in memory of their Swedish-immigrant mother, Amelia Blanxius. Although pottery was her great love, Hodge, like Gunsaulus, was also interested in textiles, particularly samplers and quilts, and in 1919 donated to the Art Institute twenty-eight quilts made between the 1820s and 1860s (Fig. 1). Her textile collection asserted the same motivation as her pottery collection—an admiration of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the association of that period with the patriotism of the early republic. Similarly, Gunsaulus, a Congregational minister and the first president of the Armour Institute, collected woven coverlets, combining his passion for weaving technology with his support for the Arts and Crafts movement and his interest in history. His collection of coverlets numbered over sixty objects and was donated to the Art Institute between 1911 and 1922.1

The Art Institute also had relationships with New England collectors such as Elizabeth (Elise) Russell Tyson Vaughan, sister of museum trustee Russell Tyson, who helped shape an interest in folk art in Chicago. Vaughan, who also supported the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA; today Historic New England), collected early American furniture, textiles, toys, and other folk art. Her home in Maine, Hamilton House, was donated to SPNEA after her death, and much of her collection went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. However, her brother, along with the Art Institute’s Curator of Decorative Arts Meyric Rogers, also selected works for the museum’s permanent collection. The Elizabeth Vaughan Bequest of American Folk Art went on view in the museum in 1953 and was the first permanent exhibition of folk art in Chicago.2

Like the great folk art dealer Edith Halpert, who chose folk art objects based on their relationship to the aesthetics of modern art, Emily Crane Chadbourne was interested in modern art as well as textiles, furniture, and other decorative objects. The daughter of Richard Crane, a wealthy plumbing manufacturer, she married young and divorced by 1905, then fled to Europe and joined the artistic circle of Gertrude Stein. In addition to donating paintings by Gauguin, Matisse, and Whistler, Chadbourne also gave the museum her collection of coverlets, printed handkerchiefs, and hooked rugs (Fig. 2). Chadbourne, like other collectors of the 1920s and 1930s, recognized the affinity between the abstract, simple lines of modern and folk-art objects.

Fig. 7 : William Bonnell (1804–1865), March 5, 1825, Oil on panel, 12 x 913⁄16 inches. Estate of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch (1980.741). (This is one of three portraits that Bonnell painted of the Bonham family.)

Traditional folk art objects, such as quilts, ship figureheads, early American ceramics (Fig. 3), and weathervanes are well represented at the Art Institute. Weathervanes were coveted because of their visual impact as silhouettes, thus appealing to a modern aesthetic. A silhouetted rooster weather vane (Fig. 4) was purchased from Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery by the Art Institute in November 1952 with funds established by museum patron Elizabeth Vaughan. Removed from a farmhouse in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the weathervane was, according to Halpert, “closely allied with the current direction in modern sculpture.”3 Also purchased with Vaughan funds, a vibrantly painted Berks County schrank shares traits with other brightly hued wardrobes from the area (Fig. 5).

Prominent early collector Robert Allerton donated several works, including fine family portraits of his ancestors by Ammi Phillips (Fig. 6). Itinerant painters, such as Phillips, and folk sculptors like Wilhelm Schimmel, who wielded a pocketknife to carve his celebrated eagles, have become foundational figures in folk art collections. Less well known are the haunting portraits of Mr. and Mrs. William Bonham and son, J. Ellis Bonham, by Hunterdon County, New Jersey, painter William Bonnell (Fig. 7). The naïve qualities of the art of this inexperienced painter demonstrate affinities with the purposeful disproportions, lack of perspective, and sparseness of modern art, which appealed to the great folk-art collectors Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, from whom the Art Institute acquired these eccentric works. Another idiosyncratic work of art that can be considered an example of folk art is a shown in Figure 8. Although the exact origin of this example of vernacular architecture is still unknown, Hattie B. Pierce was associated with this doorframe sometime in the mid- to late nineteenth century, as she commissioned a letterpress plate illustrating the doorway for printing greeting cards.4 This imaginatively carved doorframe handily suggests some of the whimsy and unrestrained design present in American vernacular architecture.

Fig. 8: Doorframe, 1840–60. White pine. H. 120½, W. 94⅝ inches. Roger and J. Peter McCormick endowments (2008.554).

The Art Institute still actively acquires folk art objects. A very recent addition to the museum’s collection is a fireboard (Fig. 9) that was once in the collection of renowned collectors Nina and Bertram Little. The fireboard was originally created for the John Mosely House in Southbury, Connecticut, (likely for an upstairs bedroom), and is related to several stenciled walls found in nearby houses in Litchfield County painted by a man called “Stimp.”5

Alongside these more traditional folk art objects, the Art Institute’s collection includes diverse objects from other American cultures, including a face jug made by a southern African-American potter and objects from the Hispanic Southwest. Isolated from European settlements elsewhere in the United States, New Mexico’s Hispanic culture flourished under Spanish and Mexican rule until 1846. Spanish woodworkers brought their skills and designs to the Southwest and taught subsequent generations their craft traditions. A Hispanic New Mexican chest, composed of Ponderosa pine (a knotty, soft pine used by southwestern furniture makers from the sixteenth to the mid- nineteenth- centuries), was likely made by someone in the Valdés family using a simple decorative vocabulary (Fig. 10). This chest was once part of the collection of E. Irving Couse, an early Anglo-American artist who settled in Taos, founded an art colony, and was an original member of the Taos Society of Artists.

Fig. 9: Fireboard, possibly “Stimp” (active ca. 1820), ca. 1820. From the John Moseley House, Southbury, Conn. Oil on pine panel, 34¼ x 45¾ inches. Quinn E. Delaney Fund; restricted gift of the Antiquarian Society, Mrs. Herbert A. Vance, Charles C. Haffner III, and Jan Pavlovic (2011.44).

Fig. 10: Chest attributed to the Valdés Family, 1780–1830, New Mexico. Ponderosa pine. H. 32 ½, W. 37⅝, D. 20⅝ in. Restricted gift of an anonymous donor in honor of Nelson E. Smyth; restricted gift of Warren L. Batts, Jamee J. and Marshall Field, Mrs. Frank L. Sulzberger, and Wesley M. Dixon, Jr. (1986.419).

Eschewing a chronological or taxonomic framework, American folk art at the Art Institute is viewed in the widest possible terms. Native-born Americans, Europeans, Hispanic populations in the Southwest, and enslaved and free African-Americans, all had an impact on American material culture, and their works are included in the new Grainger Gallery of Folk Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection
at the Art Institute of Chicago by Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski, is published by Yale University Press for the Art Institute of Chicago (2012). Following the introductory essay on the early history of folk art collecting are over 50 entries highlighting the museum’s collection. The publication was sponsored by a grant from the Grainger Foundation.


Judith A. Barter is the Field-McCormick Chair and curator of American Art, and Monica Obniski is assistant curator of American Decorative Arts, Art Institute of Chicago.

All images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1. Gunsaulus also donated his extensive collection of Wedgwood ceramics to the museum in 1912.

2. Alan R. Sawyer, “American Folk Art,” The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly 47, 1 (Feb. 1, 1953), 11–14.

3. Downtown Gallery Records, 1824–1974 bulk 1926–1969, series 3.1 (American
Folk Art Gallery Notebooks. Sculpture, Metal and Wood—Weathervanes—Birds. [Reed 5563, Frames 640–761]). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

4. The letterpress plate (2008.556) entered the collection with the doorframe.

5. For other examples of Stimp’s work, see Ann Eckert Brown, (University Press
of New England, 2003), 50; and Janet Waring, Early American Stencils on Walls
and Furniture (William R. Scott, 1937), 44.

6. This chest appears in a period photograph (ca. 1910) of the Couse living room.
Files of the Department of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago.
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