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Understanding the folk art tradition The rich American folk art tradition has deep roots in Central Massachusetts, which provided unusual economic and creative opportunities for non-traditional artists. Here Elizabeth Athens, the Worcester Art Museum’s assistant curator of American art, interviews Guest Curator Paul D’Ambrosio about the primitive art movement and its role in 19th-century culture. EA: How do you define “folk art?” How might it differ from other work in the Worcester Art Museum’s American galleries?

PD: Folk art is a broad category of works created by artists with little or no formal training in the fine arts and working in a style that emphasizes pattern and design, as well as bold color. This includes portraits, landscapes, needlework pictures, quilts, carvings, painted furniture, shop signs, and decorative arts. While American fine artists aspired to European standards of three-dimensional modeling of forms, subtle and realistic coloration, and believable spatial recession, folk artists compensated for their lack of training by focusing on patterns created by flatter forms. They learned their skills through trial and error, careful observation, or intergenerational example. The appreciation of American folk art began in the early 20th century when Modernist artists such as Robert Laurent began to collect “primitive” paintings near his summer studio at Ogunquit, Maine. One of the works he collected, Girl in White Dress with Black Cat by Zedekiah Belknap, is among the paintings exhibited at WAM this summer.

Assistant Curator of American Art, Elizabeth Athens

EA: Many of the paintings in the exhibition originate from Central Massachusetts. In what way does place inform these works?

PD: Central Massachusetts was changing rapidly during the period these works were created. In 1800, the population of Worcester County was about 61,000; by 1840 it had grown to about 95,000, a gain of 34,000 people in forty years. In the decade between 1840 and 1850, the population grew to more than 130,000, a gain of an additional 35,000 people in just ten years. Advances in industrial technology, along with improvements in transportation and increased population brought unprecedented levels of commercial activity and prosperity to the area. These tens of thousands of new residents, many working in trades and professions that cemented their middle-class status, fueled the demand for portraits and other decorated household goods. The folk artists represented here actively met this demand and, by doing so, made a living for themselves while documenting the achievements of this new middle class.

Master Series Third Thursday Thursday, September 17, 6pm

Hear Paul D’Ambrosio speak in person about Portrait of Mary Coffin, by John Brewster, Jr. (1766-1854).


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Guest Curator Paul D’Ambrosio

EA: Mary Chapin Warren and Ruth Henshaw Bascom are two of the artists featured in this exhibition. Were many folk artists women?

PD: Yes, quite a few, mainly in the textile arts (quilting and weaving) and in the area of academy or school work. Mary Chapin Warren is one of the latter, as she learned her needlework skills in finishing school and applied her talents to documenting her family in a elaborate silk embroidery. Works such as this are extraordinarily complex, involving thousands of stitches applied over the course of months. Female portrait painters are relatively rare, and often worked in media more commonly associated with women’s education: mainly watercolor and pastel. Most of these artists tended to stay closer to home and made fewer works than their male counterparts, and many ceased painting for a living after marriage. Bascom is an exception in two ways: she was as prolific as any male portraitist (making more than one thousand portraits in her lifetime), and she was innovative in her use of materials, in particular her collage technique. By contrast, the portraitist Mary Tucker, also represented in this collection, is known for a body of work comprising only 17 extant portraits.

Paul D’Ambrosio is a nationally recognized scholar of American folk art. He serves as president and chief executive officer of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum, Inc., in Cooperstown, New York. Unknown (American), Edward Hibbard, 19th century, oil on canvas, Private Collection


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