American Radiance II: Objects From Ralph Esmerian Collection

Taufwunsch for Maria Gertraud, circa 1776, the Sussel-Washington Artist, probably Berks County, Penn., watercolor and ink on paper, measuring 6 7/16 by 8 1/16 inches. The estimate is $80/120,000.

NEWTOWN, CONN. — About two months ago, Antiques and The Arts Weekly received a descriptive list of the 228 objects that were going to be sold at auction, all pieces pictured in American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum. That list was forwarded to Mr Esmerian, and in short order an e-mail came back reading, “WOW, thank god I am bankrupt and not free in January … That is some auction Sotheby’s has.”

Nancy Druckman, head of the American folk art department at Sotheby’s, confirmed that “since October we have had a stream of people including private collectors, dealers, museums, dealers representing clients, all coming by for a look at this collection that was built on the purchase of a small redware dish back in 1964.” Prior to going on public view in the gallery, the collection was shown behind closed doors in the storage areas and by appointment only.

“Ralph was driven by the beauty of an object, the design, proportions and form, all had to work together,” she said. “He was a regular at the auction houses. Here, he always took an aisle seat, midway back in the gallery, and I did most of his bidding, paying close attention to the tilt of the pencil in his hand or the twitch of an eyebrow,” she added.

Nancy noted that “Ralph had an instant reaction to the great pieces, did not spend hours black-lighting, and was thrilled about American folk art.” She added, “If this sale has to happen, we are happy to have it at Sotheby’s. It has brought with it great excitement and I have been reunited with many folk art gems.”

Ralph Esmerian had a 30-year trusteeship with the American Folk Art Museum, 25 of those years serving as president, succeeding Kristina Barbara Johnson. In 2005, after giving the museum many works, including the “Little Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog” by Ammi Philips, he gave the museum all the works the staff picked outright and the remainder was documented legally as a promised gift. “Physically, all of the pieces had already left my apartment in 2001, setting up for the exhibition in the new museum. None ever came back to me,” Ralph said. Unfortunately, when he was put into involuntary bankruptcy, the promised gift was still considered personal property. Endless negotiations resulted in the museum retaining 52 pieces, the remainder going to auction. (Saturday, January 25, 10 am, at Sotheby’s.)

The publication of American Radiance in 2001 marked two important events in the 40-year history of the American Folk Art Museum. First, it celebrated the opening on the new museum building at 45 West 53rd Street in Manhattan; second, it also documented the Ralph Esmerian Gift to the museum.

Stacy Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions at the museum, was the moving force behind this beautiful and well-documented volume. And it serves a double purpose. Every object (341) is shown in color, with generally one object per page, sometimes a couple of related objects on a page, and some of the pieces, due to size, take two pages. The end of the book contains a catalog of the collection, with a small, black and white photo, complete description of the piece, provenance if available, and additional information.

Over the years, working closely with Ralph on exhibitions, acquisitions and other matters involving the museum president’s attention, she has called Ralph an “unrepentant romantic.” In her introduction, Stacy talks about Ralph’s young life and how it laid the foundation for his great interest in American folk art.

Now Ralph Esmerian has more to say about “American Radiance.”

In 2002 visitors from all over the country viewed “American Radiance,” the opening exhibit inaugurating the new American Folk Art Museum building on West 53rd Street in New York. Watching groups alight from tour buses on one particularly bleak and wintry day, I had a fantasy, imagining time-traveling American pioneers from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries stepping down from horse-drawn wagons and carriages at the building. Among these early settlers were farmers and tradesmen, teachers and preachers, potters, carpenters, ironsmiths, families who defied frontiers working the land and, in doing so, laid the foundations of our American civilization.

Bewildered and hesitant, these early Americans entered the museum and shuffled from case to case, picture to picture, their exclamations of wonder and surprise only growing. “What are our home and workplace furnishings doing in an art museum? These are the necessities of our daily lives. Fraktur birth certificates were legal documents, proof of existence; pottery animal figures, children’s toys; samplers, the school training of young girls; family portraits and images of our farms and homes celebrated memories and domestic stability. We never pretended for them to be art. Why are they so considered 250 years later?”

In fantasy or reality, very legitimate questions. While our early urban centers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia demanded a sophistication that consumed European influence and merchandise, what of the lifestyle in the countryside — the farmers and settlers who relied on local production to supply everyday needs? Fortunately, such a culture was recognized by prominent figures in the first half of the Twentieth Century: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Holger Cahill, Henry du Pont, Electra Havemeyer Webb, Henry Ford. And like magic, the ways and means of early American life assumed the aura of art: country art, naive art, folk art.

My initial rationale for pursuing American folk art is the window it offers on the beginnings of my country, a unique society in human history, wherein the individual is afforded opportunities of material welfare and freedom of life to an extent that no other nation so populated ever offered. It could only be educational in an historic and aesthetic context if artifacts of early daily life were preserved and exhibited to remind the behemoth of modern America of the creative ingenuity and simplicity of its working origins.

Additionally, my attraction to folk art relies on the original reasons it was made. Historically, art is inclined toward the exclusive: consciously trained and learned artists and artisans catering to upper crust social authorities — kings and queens, popes and nobility, wealthy merchants. The makers of what we call folk art did not have the luxury of time, knowledge of design skills, classical inspiration or sophisticated patrons. They had no pretense that the decorative elements in their handiwork should be considered art. Yes, the aesthetic and technique are not professionally polished and lack evidence of intellectual refinement, but honed over time and experience and the need to earn a living, the work of a potter, carpenter or blacksmith satisfied the needs of a community’s hard life in practical and decorative terms.

Before beginning my American journey, I had no idea of the range of folk art, no inkling of the public collections that existed or that a fledgling folk art museum was located on two rental floors of a 53rd Street tumbledown New York brownstone. Searching for a “country Americana” gift one Saturday, I went to visit John Gordon, a dealer advertising “Folk Art,” found a colorful coverlet and upon leaving was astounded by the crisp wholeness of a small decorated slipware dish on a table.

Pottery was in my past. I had lived in Greece for two years and been stricken by the romance of amateur archaeology as I walked in the countryside following heavy rains, occasionally picking up decorated shards of ancient pottery surfacing in muddy gullies and hillsides from their millenniums underground. With the provenance of earthy material, pottery is the most ancient and visible product of nature and man’s collaborative efforts. Pottery remains the common denominator among all civilizations, providing basic food serving, drinking utensils and storage facilities. And so, that miniature dish — a handful of Pennsylvania earth fashioned by a Nineteenth Century potter — lured me visually into American folk art.

Initial research in books and catalogs, visits to museums and dealers confirmed my early impression that I preferred the slip and sgraffito pottery of the Pennsylvania Germans with the variety of shapes, designs and colors — illustrated by the oval dish with the sgraffito work of tulips, pinwheel flowers and heart [pictured on page one]. This rare shape is unsigned but attributed to either one of two known potters from Bucks County, John Monday and Conrad Mumbouer.

The majority of what we call folk art is unsigned. “Maker unknown” or “attributed to” identifications are the norm, and I learned that a name, while affecting commercial value and a certain elitism of owning a piece by so-and-so, did not enhance the inherent beauty of the object as I looked upon it. My visual reaction was paramount — often trumping authorship, attribution, dealer salesmanship, cultural importance and, sadly, affordability.

My interest in Pennsylvania German pottery opened up the world of frakturs, painted furniture and watercolors of that traditional genre. The painted, slant-top desk from the Mahantango Valley purchased from Joe Kindig III [and pictured on page one], is a special example of a unique style of furniture made in a secluded geographic area of Pennsylvania during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Rare among the more numerous chests of drawers that several Mahantango makers produced, the desk stands as a raw piece of carpentry in structure and interior detail. But what a piece of folk art, with the primitive stencil rosettes and the painting of female figures, birds and deer, possibly done by a local school teacher who used these motifs on frakturs.

The work of school teachers, moonlighting as recorders of births, is exemplified by the prolific and gifted Johann Adam Eyer and the certificate he made for his nephew in watercolor and ink in 1795. A fraktur maker whose name remains unknown is referred to as the “Washington-Sussel Artist” to commemorate the appearance of his fraktur depicting “General George and Lady Washington” in the 1958 estate auction sale of the noted dealer Arthur Sussel. The illustrated watercolor and ink birth certificate for Maria Gertraud, born in 1776 in Berks County, pictures the trademark bee bonnet headwear that the artist habitually included on his women.

Fraktur makers had to contend with limited and often inadequate pigments and inferior, fragile paper due to supply and costs; over time, poor conditioning and actual disintegration often resulted.

Though birth certificates accounted for the bulk of fraktur work, teachers would do house blessings, certificates of merit, examples of calligraphy, account books and depictions of special occasions like the wedding of the couple — note the wonderfully naive, tiny rendering of the dog compared to the giant birds adorning the arbor. The watercolor of the man with the goat, possibly done by a Sunday painter around 1825, may underline the benign racial relations enjoyed by the Pennsylvania Germans as evidenced by the good-natured admonition written in the German dialect.

The amateur observer, imaging on paper the daily events and happenings he sees, was not exclusive to traditional folk art. Deeply committed to the traditional, I was very late in developing a taste for outsider art — the expression of the individual, an outcast of a culture and community, yet able to commit inner visions as well as his response to the world around him on paper or with other material.

Bill Traylor, born into slavery a decade before the Civil War and living for nearly 100 years, into the first half of the Twentieth Century, converted the streets of Montgomery, Ala., into his outsider art studio. This former sharecropper, factory worker, this homeless man documented his environment in approximately 1,500 works on paper with pencil and poster paint. Regardless of its limited perspective and minimal draftsmanship, “Man with a Plow” conveys energy and activity as both farmer and mule kick legs and move forward. To be affected by the traditional as well as outsider art reveals the breadth and aesthetic force of our folk art heritage.

Invariably, I prefer watercolors to oils, sensing a medium that is warmer, more expressive of human moods due to watercolor fluidity. No watercolorist in American folk art fascinates me more than Jacob Maentel. Particulars of this German-born immigrant’s life remain elusive, although we know he painted about 200 portraits as he traveled in southeastern Pennsylvania and Indiana. In the beginning, his style was quiet, picturing subjects in profile with very few background details; gradually you feel the confidence building with the inclusion of flowers, birds, tiny houses and horses lacking perspective. Maentel’s crescendo in portraiture has human subjects assuming frontal, full-face and body positions, leading to room interiors and backgrounds exploding with color and furnishings.

Certainly Mr and Mrs Bickel, alive and well around 1825 in Jonestown, Lebanon County, qualify as two of the most electric visuals, with the room wrapped in blue, punctuated by the Boston-style mirrors — sparkling wallpaper and mirrors that possibly could have hung in a Pennsylvania German parlor, or been lifted on a whim by the portraitist from a printed catalog [pictured on page one — purchased from Ed and Mildred Bohne, Newmans Town, Penn.].

Although not as dramatic as the Bickels, the profile of a husband and wife with young children, believed to be from Elizabethtown in Lancaster County, shows Maentel in 1815–20, at the height of his profile period. The bearing of adults and children conveys the elegance of countryside aristocracy. Neither Bickels nor the Elizabethtown family is signed.

I acquired all of Maentel’s family portraits as they were framed individually, husband and wife each on their own. Much to the consternation of certain experts, including Mary Allis, I framed couples together under one piece of glass because it added the visual impact that the pictures deserved, confirming the conversion of a family memento to a work of art. I also felt, without a guarantee, that sharing a frame might improve a family’s chance of staying together, defying separation, and remaining visually more exciting and historically intact. I applied this practice of togetherness to New England families as well.

New England offered a greater population of watercolor painters, but the husband (a medical doctor) and wife collaboration of Samuel and Ruth Shute became my New England masters. Unsigned and dated 1828, Mary Ann Russel’s expression reflects not only vulnerable innocence, but the daily drudgery of her harsh life toiling in a Lowell, Mass., mill. She resides in her original frame, beautifully painted, wood matching the power of the watercolor image. This is one of the few watercolors I did not reframe.

Rarely did I know or feel that frames were original to the picture. In the case of fraktur birth certificates, the original families kept these documents in dower chests or chests of drawers. When framed by later generations, no neutral mat border was added to offset the dark wood immediately overwhelming the paper. I feel that to enjoy watercolors, the piece needs to breathe, to be given a mat border to separate it so that it will stand out from the hard frame’s shadow. Of course, that need set me off collecting original, beautifully decorated country frames from which to choose once I had the watercolors.

In this same period, an unknown artist painted in oils a fireboard scene of Boston Harbor showing specific wharves and buildings, including the Boston State House. Oil paintings were more prevalent in New York and New England than in Pennsylvania, possibly due to the stronger influence of English and French portraiture, which did not touch the Pennsylvania German culture.

Visiting Connecticut dealer Florence Maine of Ridgefield for the first time in 1972, I saw a pair of unsigned oils that had recently been in a London auction. The dealer felt they were by John Durand, who painted along the Eastern seaboard in the last half of the Eighteenth Century. Authorship and attribution mattered if you were interested in American folk art, otherwise the husband and wife were sensational on their very own, their nationalities unimportant. What a poster couple representing the youth of an emerging nation.

The young man is presumed to be the captain of the ship pictured through the background window; his serious expression, matched by ramrod posture, only looks into the future with ambitious determination. But he is eclipsed by the stunning beauty and painterliness the artist applies to his young bride, enhanced by the details of her jewels, dress and lacework. The pair were a welcome contrast to the New England portraits I usually saw, invariably cast in a bland seriousness initiating a somber pall spread over figures and canvas. Rarely did I see humanity, a naturalness, an energy or even an expressive quirk of character and pose. And besides, few oils portrayed handsome men, beautiful women, no matter their ages. The Durand portraits, as they were later attributed and possibly identified, defined a young American aristocracy.

In 1973, just one year after the Durands, I had another fortuitous first-time visit to a dealer in Salem, N.Y. Martin Zweig had a strong reputation as an excellent picker for several of the antique dealers in New York City and New England. I was greeted at the door by him and his wife, and we immediately began a walk through their home to view the inventory set up in various rooms. Martin appeared shy and self-conscious, ill at ease with perfunctory small talk, but he came alive and sparkled when pointing to objects and discussing their relevance as antiques. Upon completing the house tour, the Zweigs suggested we sit down in the living room — adding the caveat that none of the pieces in the parlor were for sale.

As I entered this dimly lit room, I was mesmerized by the sight of a great white rabbit carousel figure. Short-tailed, glass eyes and long-eared with an original paint surface showing slight wear and tear, the rabbit dominated the room and all the inventory I had seen — giving a reason for my visit as it appeared to bound over its surroundings of formal furniture and folk art.

Not for sale was the very quick retort to my question. As we talked some more, I exclaimed over certain pieces but always returned to the fabulous rabbit. Perhaps 15 minutes later, the husband asked his wife to call Jason from his room, explaining that Jason was their son whom I had not met on my tour. Martin admitted that he was never comfortable discussing not-for-sale objects for fear of risking a client’s hostility at the apparent conflict of interest between being a dealer and a collector as well. Thus he wanted his son included in our conversations. I nodded sympathetically, feeling for the man’s innate awkwardness.

Enter Jason — my expectation of the adult son evaporated on the sight of a boy, small of stature but serious of demeanor. We shake hands, exchanging names, as his father explains my interest in folk art and the rabbit. Jason immediately picks up when Martin has finished and proceeds to elaborate on the Zweigs’ love of pieces and that they are not meant to be teasers but simply the furnishings they want to live with. I am impressed by the kid’s delivery and merely repeat my request to have the rabbit, adding that I own a rooster and horse carousel figures that I feel are of similar workmanship quality as the rabbit.

Jason never takes his eyes off me, listening intently, then turns to his father and declares that the family should sell the figure to me, that the rabbit would have a good home. Martin asks if he is sure of his decision. Although shocked by the turnaround, I never get the sense that I am being set up, listening to a duet sung by good cop, bad cop. Jason never breaks stride and affirms he would sell it. Martin then instructs him to put a price on the figure since that is his decision.

Jason has yet to smile since entering the room. He continues to look at me and without glancing away out of embarrassment or hesitancy, proceeds to price the rabbit at a value three times the individual costs of my horse and rooster. As politely as I can, I ask Jason his age. “I’m 10,” he says. I stare back, slumping slightly in my chair as I feel the room spinning. Have I followed Alice down the hole in Wonderland? Maybe Dorothy’s tornado has tossed me into this scenario, starring a live American Gothic dealer and wife, a 10-year-old son precocious beyond the experience of most lifetimes, and the four of us absorbed by the great white rabbit.

Still smiling and noticing that even Martin was aghast at his son’s temerity, I asked Jason how he had determined the price so quickly, so definitely, all on his own. Without hesitation he elaborated, and I got up to shake a congratulatory hand and to thank the Zweig family.

And so the white rabbit came home, a superb painted carved figure from the Dentzel works in Philadelphia at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when carousels twirled their spin throughout the country. Every time I looked at him I remembered a very first visit with a dealer in Salem, a memory filled with a youngster’s fluency and audacity that matched the magic of a white rabbit. I paid two more visits to the Zweigs over the years, but never saw the filial prodigy. I have heard that a Jason Zweig is considered one of the more respected financial writers in this country. No surprise for one who remembers his 10-year-old presence and reasoning.

For 35 years I often felt as a carpetbagger, swooping up and down the Northeast coast, particularly Pennsylvania, to return home lugging folk art loot. The intention was to gather, preserve, enjoy and finally give — to the American Folk Art Museum, which was founded in 1961, a lone cultural pillar of folk art in New York. It was pathetic that this capital of the arts and communication, this historic port of entry for immigrants bringing their respective traditions which would morph into American folk art, had no institution specializing in preserving and exhibiting this vital base of our civilization.

The young museum grew as a hard core of devoted trustees pursued an agenda of development and education. But in the eternal tsunami of New York activity, I have a lasting regret that we could not attract so many more patient, quality trustees to the art and the aims of the institution. With an experienced and dedicated staff and an extraordinary collection gathered over its 50-year existence, the museum remains young, still finding its footing and stride.

I never intended to form a comprehensive collection of American folk art. Although I understand their relevance, there are mediums and materials, as well as certain artists, that never grabbed me. I am guided by my taste and instinct, and what knowledge I acquired. Collecting is a very personal and private experience, juggling the emotional reaction to a visual with the rational assessment of authenticity, cultural value and affordability. I favor the impact of visual chemistry, but processing this teamwork of the visceral and the intellectual is exhilarating and essential.

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