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Army Signalman Whirligig
John Green Satterley (d. 1882)
Mount Vernon, New York, circa 1865–1870
Painted wood
Height 19" Extension of arms, approximately 27"
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Maxim Karolik (58.1157)

One of the treasures of American folk art in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is a large whirligig figure of an army signalman. The swinging arms of this soldier end in paddlelike forms resembling an American flag in his left hand and a curved sword in his right. His knapsack is lettered “14 / SNY,” probably for the 14th New York regiment, who wore the distinctive red and blue uniform depicted on this figure. However, as is the case with much folk art, the identity of the maker of this unsigned object had been lost over time. When the whirligig was acquired for the Karolik Collection in the 1950s, its place of origin was given as Mount Vernon, New York, but no artist’s name was associated with it.

The museum lent the whirligig to the major folk art exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1974; it was illustrated on page 151 of the catalogue, which was written by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester and titled The Flowering of American Folk Art (1776–1876) (New York: Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of Art, 1974).

It was thus an exciting moment when, in 1983, Constance M. Higgins contacted the museum to say that she had seen this published illustration and that she had inherited two nearly identical examples made by her great-grandfather, John Green Satterley. One of her figures was inscribed in her grandmother’s handwriting, “made by J.G. Satterley,” and each strongly resembled the museum’s whirligig in pose, costume, size, and carving style. The inevitable conclusion is that the museum’s whirligig must be by Satterley’s hand as well. At least one other whirligig has been published that appears to be made by Satterley: another Civil War figure, owned in 1975 by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Marcus of Carmel Valley, California (see Masterpieces of American Folk Art [Lincroft, New Jersey: Monmouth Museum, 1975]).

Like many folk artists, however, Satterley remains a largely unknown figure. He ran a general store in Mount Vernon, and he was eulogized in glowing but very general terms in his obituary in The Westchester Times (December 2, 1882) as “an unassuming yet public spirited citizen, one against whom naught but words of praise can be said.” A member of the Methodist Church, Satterley was buried in the family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery. Yet, thanks to the eagle eyes of Ms. Higgins, we can now recognize his work, and in time, we may learn more about this important folk artist.

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