Folk Art of the Americas is hard to describe. It is typically thought of as art made in the Americas that is non-academic, amateur, self-taught, provincial, rural, or vernacular, as well as often utilitarian in nature. Folk Art was never a term used by artists or makers about themselves or their work; instead, it is a category defined by, and continually redefined by, collectors and museums. The definition of folk art is fluid, changing, and often depends on the eye of the beholder. This tour features some highlights of the MFA’s collection of Folk Art of the Americas.
Attributed to Thomas Drowne (American, 1715–1796)
Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Cock weathervane with metal rod and base mount
First Parish Congregational Church, Newbury, Massachusetts; 2008, sold by the First Parish Congregational Church to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 17, 2008)
Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and from Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond, Joyce and Edward Linde, and Barbara W. and Amos B. Hostetter, Jr., and by exchange from the Bequest of Barbara Boylston Bean, Gift of the Faulkner Hospital, Samuel Putnam Avery Fund, Bequest of Samuel Abbott Green, Gift of Mrs. Alice Carpenter Ireland, Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Bybee, Gift of Amy and Richard Lipton, Gift of Nancy G. Myers and Lawrence Coolidge, Gift of the legatees under the will of Ellen T. Bullard, and Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Weller
Chest with drawers
Object Place: Berks or Lebanon County, Pennsylvania
"Peter Rammler" painted on front of chest
Lock inscribed with stipple tool with initials "I.S."
Originally made for Peter Rammler (1770-1850) of Stouchburg, Berks County, PA; around the 1930s, purchased by an identified Pennsylvania collector; 2001, sold by Philip H. Bradley, dealer in Downingtown, PA to Theodore and Barbara Alfond, Weston, MA; 2014, gift of the Alfonds to the MFA. (Accession date: October 29, 2014)
Gift of Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond in honor of Malcolm Rogers on the occasion of his twentieth year as Director of the MFA, Boston
Joseph Moore and His Family
Erastus Salisbury Field (American, 1805–1900)
In 1839, after a brief period of artistic training under Samuel F. B. Morse [48.455] in New York and more than a decade working successfully in the Connecticut River Valley as a portrait painter, Erastus Salisbury Field returned to Ware, Massachusetts, to live with his in-laws. Across the street lived the family of Joseph Moore, a traveling dentist in the summer when the roads were passable and a hatter in the winter months. This portrait of Field’s neighbors was the largest and most complex he ever painted.
Moore and his wife, Almira Gallond Moore, are shown nearly life-size, seated in gaily painted Hitchcock chairs and surrounded by attentive children—their two sons at right and their recently orphaned niece and nephew at left. Like many folk painters, Field combined careful attention to detail (scrupulously recording Moore’s birthmark, for example, and the ornate pattern of Mrs. Moore’s collar) with attractive eccentricities of composition and drawing. The figures and the features of the room are stringently balanced. Field’s perspective is haphazard: the mirror’s shadow recedes in the wrong direction, while the patterned carpet is not foreshortened and so appears to run uphill. And the children look like little elves, with pointy ears and stubby fingers.
The portrait remained in the family until 1958, when Maxim Karolik bought it for the MFA. At the same time, the Museum was presented with the chairs [RES.58.1], mirror [RES.58.3], and jewelry (a brooch [RES.58.6], a tie pin [RES.58.5], and a buckle [RES.58.7]) depicted in the portrait, as well as Joseph Moore’s dental tools [RES.58.4] and other objects.
This text was adapted from Gerald W. R. Ward et al., American Folk (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001).
By 1928, descended in family of the sitters to a great-granddaughter of Joseph Moore, Helen E. Farrar (born 1890), Sherborn, Mass.; 1957, sold by Helen E. Farrar to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1958, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 9, 1958)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865
Rufus Porter (American, 1792–1884)
Wall painting from the Prescott Tavern, Jaffrey, New Hampshire (built in 1803).
Self-taught itinerant artist, inventor, publisher, and adventurer Rufus Porter began painting murals in private homes, taverns, and inns around New England in 1824. He had been traveling throughout Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, producing “correct likenesses in less than fifteen minutes,” with the help of a type of camera obscura he invented in 1820. Possibly discouraged by his inability to sell his small landscapes or portraits, Porter reprised an earlier career as a fiddle player to supplement his fee, and also decorated rooms. After performing at the brick Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in 1824, Porter stayed on to paint the walls of the tavern’s taproom parlor, most likely to pay the debt he owed proprietor Colonel Benjamin Prescott for room and board. This mural is one of the Prescott Tavern walls.
Originally thought to be a view of Boston Harbor, this scene may be instead a representation of Portland Harbor in Maine, as seen from nearby Munjoy Hill. Porter spent time in Portland as a boy; his father moved the family there from West Boxford, Massachusetts, shortly after Rufus’s birth in 1792. Porter enlisted as a private in the Maine state militia in 1814, serving through 1815, and according to military records, Porter’s unit conducted daily drilling exercises on the Eastern side of Munjoy Hill overlooking Portland Harbor. Contemporary photographs of Munjoy Hill reveal similar topography to that represented in the mural, including the land masses and elm trees that figure so prominently. In Porter’s view, three islands squat in the bay and schooners glide in and out of a small harbor at the right. Two poplars on the foreground bank frame a spreading elm, which divides the horizontal composition directly in half. Gently curving branches reach into the composition at the left and right edges, echoing the pattern integrated into the stenciled border at the top of the wall. Rather than painting specific elements of this familiar landscape, Porter manipulated it to create an imagined scene rather than an observed one, a formalized design rather than a realistic representation. He instructed his readers to do the same, writing in Scientific American during the 1840s, “The artist must excel nature in picturesque brilliancy and embellish the work though not in perfect imitation of anything.”
By using these decorative conventions, Porter intended his murals to provide a quick, inexpensive, and durable alternative to the imported scenic wallpapers available to only the wealthiest New Englanders in the early years of the nineteenth century. The MFA’s Shepard Room [27.301] from Bath, Maine, for example, contains imported wallpaper similar to the “Galérie Mythologique” pattern produced by famed French designer Joseph DuFour around the same time. DuFour’s“Bay of Naples” and “Captain Cook” were among the most popular designs of the day, and Porter likely saw examples of both.  Like the more exotic “Captain Cook,” Porter’s ordinary New England harbor scene possesses a muted palette, a foreground dominated by a large central tree, and an expanse of water punctuated by land masses and sailing vessels. Perhaps Porter saw the legendary adventurer’s voyage to the South Seas as reminiscent of his own seafaring travels, including in one of the Prescott Tavern paintings an erupting volcano as a reference to Cook.
Porter approached his murals the same way he approached his scientific inventions, intending to create an appealing but affordable product using whatever time-saving means possible. His 1825 recipe book Curious Arts and his numerous painting entries in Scientific American during 1845 and 1846 provide ample instruction for self-taught artists and a unique window into his working methods. Porter boasted that he, and anyone following his recommendations on color, proportion, and design, could prepare and complete four walls of a cycle in five hours, for a total cost of $10. He began the process by drawing a horizon line on each wall and then worked from top to bottom on dry plaster, using pigments ground in a glue binder he mixed himself. Many artists before him decorated furniture with paint and stencils, but Porter proved to be among the first muralists to employ both, considering stencils to be a valuable time-saving tool. In this painting, he used corks and sponges for the border, the houses, and the ships, and he created the two playful squirrels at left by turning the same stencil at different angles. While he often had help from his nephew, Jonathan Poor, and his son, Stephen Twombly, and later collaborated on murals with the stencil master Moses Eaton, Jr., Porter is thought to have worked alone at the Prescott Tavern.
The lack of signed examples and the sheer number of Porter murals scattered throughout New England make them difficult to date. Before Jean Lipman established a chronology for the murals in 1968, Porter’s work had been attributed to a British spy from the War of 1812, a wandering sailor, and any number of French, English, or German immigrant artists roaming the countryside in the early years of the nineteenth century. Boston Harbor fits securely into Porter’s early period, with its tight drawing, limited use of landscape elements, and use of sharp but somewhat unrealistic shading. The stippled foliage of the trees, subdued color scheme, and primitive rendering of the details suggests his early sign paintings and craft art of the 1820s. While the early murals may lack the confidence and maturity of Porter’s later work, they possess a charming simplicity not present in his paintings of the 1830s and 1840s.
When the Prescott Tavern was torn down in 1950, wealthy New Hampshire industrialist A. Erland Goyette purchased the parlor murals and installed them in his private museum in Peterborough. The museum closed when Goyette died in 1960, and his widow stored the paintings until 1979. The Marriott Corporation purchased this mural at auction in 1980. Prior to installation of the piece in the upper lobby of the company’s Long Wharf Hotel in Boston, conservators removed the painting from its original sagging support and remounted it on a fiberglass backing. The MFA received the mural as a gift in 2007.
1. Jean Lipman, Rufus Porter Rediscovered (New York: Crown Publishers, 1980), 5.
2. Ibid., 106.
3. Scientific American, March 26, 1846.
4. Nancy McClelland, Historic Wall-Papers (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1924), 371, 388.
5. Lipman, Rufus Porter Rediscovered, 95.
6. Ibid., 152.
7. Ibid., 92.
About 1824, commissioned for the Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, N.H.; 1950, removed to the Goyette Museum, Peterborough, NH; stored by the owner, Mrs. Hazel Goyette, upon the Goyette Museum's closing; January 31, 1979, Fine Americana, Sotheby's Parke Bernet, lot 655, to the Marriot Corporation; 1982, installed at Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston, Mass.; 2007, sold by the Marriott Corporation to Joyce and Edward Linde, Boston, Mass.; 2007, gift of Joyce and Edward Linde to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 27, 2007)
Gift of Joyce and Edward Linde
Family Group with Child, Cat and Vase
Joseph H. Davis (American, 1811–1865)
Folk art- portraits. Family around table on brightly colored patterned carpet. Kept with Karolik Collection
By 1965, Mary L. Smith; 1965, gift of Mary L. Smith to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 10, 1965)
Mary L. Smith Fund
Object Place: Edgefield District, South Carolina
Face vessel with spout at top. Eyes and teeth made from white kaolin set in earthenware body, and covered with the same alkaline glaze as the body. Broad nose with wide-set eyes. Greenish glaze.
By 1926, collection of George S. McKearin (1). At unknown date, sold by McKearin to D. S. Clark, a dealer; 1952, sold by Clark to collectors Harry and Dorothy Frey (Terre Haute, Indiana) for $65.00; at unknown date, sold by Freys to Jayne Blaske for $150.00; September 17, 1983, sold at Skinner Auction, sale of the Edmund & Jayne Blaske Collection, lot #506, purchased by Tony L. Shank (Marion, S.C.); June 8, 1997, sold by Shank to John Axelrod, Boston; 2011, sold by Axelrod to the MFA. (Accession date: June 22, 2011).
1. Illustrated in John Spargo, Early American Pottery and China (New York: The Century Co., 1926), plate 61.
The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection
Young Eagle with Outspread Wings
Attributed to Wilhelm Schimmel (American (born in Germany), 1817–1890)
Object Place: Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, United States
Meditation by the Sea
Unidentified artist, American, mid-19th century
Meditation by the Sea has fascinated scholars of folk art for its unique combination of naivety and sophistication. As did many self-taught artists, the painting’s creator derived inspiration from the popular press. The source for the composition has been identified as a wood engraving by an artist using the pseudonym Porte-Crayon that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on September 21, 1860. The print was accompanied by a written account of “A Summer in New England” and a recent visit to the “tumultuous spirit of the waters” at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. The author of the article, David H. Strother, a Virginian and member of the Union army, was later identified as the artist and illustrator Porte-Crayon himself.
The carefully delineated curling waves in the print are echoed by the expressive water in the painting. The painter has emphasized a sense of infinity by depicting the waves as though they are carved out of wood and are gradually whittled down to a fine point towards the otherworldly rocks on the horizon. A familiarity with one-point perspective is evident in the rendering of the receding cliff, yet the artist skews the rest of the view to suggest the vastness of the space stretching into the distance. The single brooding figure in the foreground and the tiny silhouettes far in the distance endow the painting with a surreal sense of scale and mood.
Solitary figures contemplating the ocean occur frequently in works by the Hudson River landscape painters, especially Fitz Henry Lane [48.448] and John Frederick Kensett. Such figures were a defining feature of their luminist paintings, as were pronounced horizon lines and a particular quality of light. This unknown artist likely had access to such works, or may have consulted similar images in prints or drawing books. But the mood of this picture, enhanced by the expressive distortions of scale and by the idiosyncratic drawing, is unique. The immensity of the horizon, which dwarfs the figure, and the ominous branch devoid of leaves that seems to hang like the sword of Damocles over the cliff create an impression of foreboding. Meditation by the Sea was probably painted near the outbreak of the Civil War (based on the date of the engraving that inspired it). The figure’s confrontation with the omnipotence of nature and God underscores a sense of dread in contemplating the possible outcome of a devastating conflict.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
1943, with J. B. Neumann, New York; 1943, sold by J. B. Neumann to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1945, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 13, 1945)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865
American (Athens, Georgia)
Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910)
Object Place: Athens, Georgia, United States
Appliqué quilt, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton. The quilt is divided into fifteen pictorial rectangles. Worked with pieces of beige, pink, mauve, orange, dark red, gray-green and shades of blue cotton.
This extraordinary quilt was created by Harriet Powers, an African American woman who was born a slave in Georgia in 1837. Powers is thought to have orally dictated a description of each square of her quilt to Jennie Smith, who had purchased the first quilt Powers made, and arranged for it to be exhibited at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. This second quilt is thought to have been commissioned by a group of “faculty ladies” at Atlanta University, and given (together with Powers’s descriptions) as a gift to a retiring trustee. What follows is Powers’ descriptions of all fifteen blocks starting in the upper left and moving to the right.
1. Job praying for his enemies. Job crosses. Job’s coffin.
2. The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.
3. The serpent lifted up by Moses and women bringing their children to look upon it to be healed.
4. Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand.
5. John baptizing Christ and the spirit of God descending and resting upon his shoulder like a dove.
6. Jonah cast over board of the ship and swallowed by a whale. Turtles.
7. God created two of every kind, male and female.
8. The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.
9. Two of every kind of animal continued…camels, elephants, “gheraffs,” lions, etc.
10. The angels of wrath and the seven vials. The blood of fornications. Seven-headed beast and 10 horns which arose of the water.
11. Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor.
12. The red light night of 1846. A man tolling the bell to notify the people of the wonder. Women, children and fowls frightened by God’s merciful hand caused no harm to them.
13. Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.
14. The creation of animals continues.
15. The crucifixion of Christ between the two thieves. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.
About 1895-1898, Dr. Charles Cuthbert Hall (1852-1908), New York [see note 1]; 1908, by inheritance to his son, the Reverend Basil Douglas Hall (1888 - 1979), New York; between November 2, 1960 and February 7, 1961, sold by Hall to Maxim Karolik (1893-1963), Boston; 1964, bequest of Karolik to MFA. (Accession date: May 13, 1964)
 Commissioned and purchased for Hall, President of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, by the faculty ladies of Atlanta University where he had served as chairman of the board of trustees.
Bequest of Maxim Karolik
Carousel Figure of a Pig
Object Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Carved and painted figure with black saddle and green blanket underneath; acorn with green leaves on one side; mottled beige body with brown spots. There are numerous losses to the paint on the body; saddle and blanket underneath repainted in modern times.
Said to be in a private collection in Halifax, Massachusetts, by the 1930s; sold, Skinner, Bolton, Massachusetts, American Furniture and Decorative Arts Sale 2092, August 12, 2001, lot 241; purchased by the MFA.
Mary E. Moore Gift
Overall: 76.2 x 127 x 29.2cm (30 x 50 x 11 1/2in.) Mount (Wooden base ): 8.9 x 20.3 x 66 cm (3 1/2 x 8 x 26 in.) Mount (wooden post): 58.4 x 4.1 cm (23 x 1 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Basswood (Tilia americana), glass
Not On View
Untitled (Black and White Frontal Caballero)
Martín Ramírez (Mexican, 1895–1963)
Estate of Martín Ramírez; to Ricco Maresca Gallery (New York); to Nielsen Gallery (Boston, MA); from whom pruchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Accession Date: June 17, 2009)
Virginia Herrick Deknatel Purchase Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection
© 2009 Estate of Martín Ramírez courtesy of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery