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Fame Weathervane, attributed to E.G. Washburne & Company, New York, ca. 1890. Copper and zinc with gold leaf. H. 39", W. 35 3/4", D. 23 1/2". Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York; promised gift of Ralph Esmerian; photography by Gavin Ashworth, New York. P1.2001.372.

Pheme, or Fame, exists beneath the clouds in the ether between earth and sky. Her eyes never close, she never sleeps, and she sounds her trumpet to herald news both day and night. As the messenger chosen to announce the inauguration of the American Folk Art Museum’s American Antiques Show, she is the perfect symbol of the long hours, hard work, and great anticipation that attended the launch of the show on January 17, 2002, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York.

The Fame weathervane, whose graceful silhouette has been adopted as the logo of the American Antiques Show, is one of more than 400 luminous artworks recently pledged to the museum by Ralph Esmerian, chairman of the museum’s board. It will be on view in American Radiance: The Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum, an exhibition that coincides with the opening of the museum’s acclaimed new home at 45 West 53rd Street.1 With her soaring wings and proffered wreath, Fame has become the grace note of the Esmerian collection, singing its praises as a representation of American folk art at its finest.

The elegant representation of Fame, draped in a flowing girded robe, or “chiton,” with hair swept into a Greek knot crowned by a type of metal arc adornment known as a “stephane,” attests to the endurance of classical iconography in the decorative arts, from its popularity in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries to the present. Publications illustrating costumes worn by the ancient Greeks were already available by the turn of the nineteenth century, and the installation of the neoclassical Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886 contributed to the continued longevity of the Greco-Roman ideal. This was reflected to some extent in more vernacular forms such as weathervanes.

textFame has the careless aspect of a goddess who is above earthly concerns—poised lightly on toe point atop an orb, one leg lifting away like a Degas ballerina frozen in midmotion. Remarkable for her lithe form, the three-dimensional figure is counterbalanced by the extension of the right arm, her hand holding a halo-like wreath, and the other raising an attenuated trumpet to her lips. Clarity of detail is also evident, from the naturalistically modeled feet to the elegant neoclassical face and finely textured wings. The wonderfully preserved surface is patinated with a beautiful verdigris, marbled with traces of gold leaf and aged copper.

The weathervane has a history of ownership in New York City. Provenance indicates it was probably manufactured by E.G. Washburne & Company, founded by Isaiah Washburne in 1853. Until 1907, the manufactory occupied a second-floor workshop at 708 Fulton Street. It then moved a few blocks away to 207 Fulton Street. Sometime during the 1920s, the company passed ownership to Charles C. Kessler, a longtime employee. Hanging in the old Washburne workshop, Fame witnessed the transition of title and remained in situ until 1963. This particular example may have been the last Fame weathervane produced by the Washburne company while still in family hands.

Two related Fame weathervanes in private collections are known today, one previously owned by Ralph Esmerian. The weathervanes have at times been attributed to the J.L. Mott Iron Works in New York based on an engraving in Mott’s 1892 catalogue that illustrates a similar figure; the documentation that has descended with the museum’s Fame, however, strongly indicates that it was made by E.G. Washburne & Company. The Mott catalogue therefore highlights the challenge of rightly attributing weathervanes to specific makers when documentation does not exist.

Functioning as wind indicators, the imagery of weathervanes is usually without irony or nuance. In the instance of Fame, as with the Angel Gabriel, not only does it relate direction of the wind, but in mythology it reflects the uncertainty and foibles of the human condition. Gabriel’s trumpet blast is eagerly awaited yet harkens incalculable consequences, while Fame is known to blow both a good and an ill wind with equal indifference. While this may be an apt metaphor for a weathervane, when it comes to antiques shows, the American Folk Art Museum trusts that Fame will live up to her name and herald favorable winds.

Stacy C. Hollander is Senior Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. She is the curator of many exhibitions, most recently American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum, and author of the publication of the same name (2001). She is the principal author (with Brooke Anderson and Gerard Wertkin) of American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (2001). She also frequently lectures on a variety of folk art topics.

  1. The exhibition runs through May 2002.

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