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Fig. 1: William Allen by William Matthew Prior (1806–1873), Massachusetts, 1843. Oil on canvas. 32 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1948.

In terms of American art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is generally recognized for its plentiful holdings of high-style works encompassing furniture, paintings, and decorative arts. Many past exhibitions and publications have celebrated these collections. As a step in planning future innovative installations of its American art, the museum has organized its first major exhibition of folk art, American Folk, incorporating examples from its own collection as well as a select number of privately owned objects in all media.

The museum’s collections contain hundreds of works by nonacademic artists active in rural areas and small towns, fulfilling their own artistic needs and meeting the desires of a growing population of Americans who wanted their portraits painted and their homes enhanced by decorated furniture and household textiles. Much of the museum’s folk art is not permanently on view, notably the light-sensitive quilts, silk embroideries, Fraktur drawings, and other works on paper; the exhibition provides the opportunity for their rare exposure.

Fig. 2: The Caverly Brothers by Joseph H. Davis (1811–1865), Strafford, New Hampshire, 1836. Watercolor over graphite pencil on paper. 8 1/8 x 12 1/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1952.

The beginnings of the folk art collection may be traced to the large donations of American art made between 1937 and 1962 by Maxim Karolik, a colorful Russian émigré, and his wife of distinguished Boston ancestry, Martha Codman Karolik. The couple first donated eighteenth-century furniture, silver, and paintings. They later presented nineteenth-century paintings, among which were nonacademic images. Thus the first body of work by folk artists entered the museum.

A few folk art objects bear Martha’s name as donor, such as William Matthew Prior’s (1806–1873) portrait of 2-year-old William Allen (Fig. 1). The Cambridge, Massachusetts, boy is presented as a young prince, in a royal blue outfit, seated on a grassy mound between two greyhounds. Despite the fact that he wears a dress and carries flowers in his hand, his masculine gender is indicated by the part down the side of his hair; girls’ hair was generally parted in the center. The elegance of the scene is furthered by the graceful pose of the dog at the right, wearing a splendid collar with a gilt clasp. Greyhounds were the exclusive property of royalty in ancient Egypt and in medieval England, valued for their speed and pleasant temperament. Introduced into America by the Spanish, greyhounds continued to arrive with European visitors, becoming a popular breed with the elite of this country.

Fig. 3: Red-breasted merganser, attributed to Augustus Aaron “Gus” Wilson (1864–1950), Monhegan Island, Maine, ca. 1910. Painted wood. H. 8, L. 19 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Maxim Karolik, 1958.

In the 1950s, after Martha’s death, Maxim continued to purchase American art for the museum. He worked closely with curators to form a third collection containing well over 3,000 drawings and watercolors, some 350 of which are classified as folk art. Many are portraits, often of unidentified sitters or by anonymous artists. Few carry the documentation of a double portrait of two Strafford, New Hampshire, boys, 11-year-old Everett Caverly and his brother, John, aged 8 (Fig. 2). The sheet is undeniably by the artist who signed some of his 160 known works with “Joseph H. Davis, Left Hand Painter,” identified by Arthur and Sibyl Kern as a farmer born in Limington, Maine, in 1811, who became a land trader and inventor and died in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1865 (see The Clarion, summer 1989). The boys, in their neat suits and holding small books and large black caps, face each other in a garden setting, which is somewhat unusual for Davis who more commonly placed his sitters in an interior with painted furniture and brightly patterned rugs.

Fig. 4: Child in a Rocking Chair, E. L. George, 1876. Oil on canvas. 15 1/8 x 13 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1962.

When plans were afoot to formally present the M. and M. Karolik collection of American watercolors and drawings, a number of sculptures were acquired to enrich the gift, among them several weathervanes and more than a dozen decoys. One of the most handsome is this red-breasted merganser drake, attributed to “Gus” Wilson (Fig. 3).

A lighthouse keeper on Monhegan Island, Wilson carved thousands of decoys to sell to hunters on the southern coast of Maine. The elegant profile and sensitively abstracted shapes of light and dark paint make this one of the best in the group.

By the early 1960s Karolik had acquired a taste for off-beat images, purchasing a canvas that depicts an anxious child seated in a rocking chair, dwarfed by a basket of gigantic strawberries (Fig. 4). Nothing is known about the artist except for the signature “E. L. George.” Painted in 1876 after the introduction of photography, the influence of this new medium is apparent in the specificity of the face, portrayed with a clarity absent from the rest of the image.

Fig. 6: Pictorial quilt, possibly Peru, Indiana, 1888. Cotton, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. 77 1/2 x 73 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Otis Norcross Fund and Arthur Tracy Cabot Fund, 2000.

After 1963, the year of Maxim Karolik’s death, the museum continued to collect folk art. Jonathan Fairbanks, the first curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, added breadth and variety by acquiring more commonplace items, including a New York State chest with drawers made between 1840 and 1860 (Fig. 5). The painted decorations, once salmon pink and dark green, have now turned yellow ochre and black with age. At each end are painted flowers and a pair of parrots, and on the front, an unusual motif of a man and woman facing each other while holding flags, as grooms behind them hold horses at the ready. While the meaning of these decorative elements is now lost, we can enjoy the scene in the context of folk art.

In very recent years the museum has continued to acquire folk art, including several important quilts, among which is an irresistible one specifically purchased in preparation for American Folk (Fig. 6). Found in Peru, Indiana, this coverlet is
Fig. 5: Chest with drawers, possibly New York State, ca. 1840–1860. Painted pine. H. 28 1/2, W. 43 1/2, D. 18 1/2 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of a Friend of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Frank B. Bemis Fund, 1982.

made from miniature polka dot, navy blue cotton fabric appliqued on a white ground. It is enlivened by small accents of red fabric, embroidered spirals of smoke, and tiny details drawn in pen and ink. Town buildings fill the center and people go about their business, some on foot, others in wagons and railroad cars. Bordered with fences and telegraph poles, the quilt is dated 1888 and marked with the letters ER, which may refer to the Erie Railroad. With acquisitions such as this quilt, the museum looks forward to continuing to add to its collection and enriching the interpretation of folk art in America.

American Folk may be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through August 5; a book by the same title accompanies the exhibition. The exhibition was prepared by a multidisciplinary team consisting of Abaigeal Duda, Pamela Parmal, Sue Reed, Gilian Shallcross, Carol Troyen, and Gerry Ward. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues to this article. For more information, call 617.267.9300, or visit www.mfa.org.

Sue Welsh Reed, Curator of Prints and Drawings, has been with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for forty years. Among her other publications, she is a contributing author to American Folk (MFA, 2001).

All photography courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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