Feature:US folk art nurtured patriot theme

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 1, 2002 at 10:30 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- The flag-waving show of patriotism that swept the United States after the Sept. 11 disaster and the subsequent war on terrorism reflects a love of country that has been a dominant theme in American folk art since the birth of the nation.

Only last May, a prime example of patriotic art -- Norman Rockwell's iconic World War II painting, "Rosie the Riveter" -- sold for $4.9 million at Sotheby's New York auction house, setting an auction record for the artist and amazing the art world.

Patriotic symbolism is one of the themes of a major show of 225 items made by self-taught artists at the new American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan, drawn from the museum's own permanent collection of some 4,000 objects ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. One of three inaugural exhibitions titled "American Anthem," the show will run through Jan. 5, 2003.

Although the current show touches on many enduring themes including religion, community concerns, and aesthetic ideas, patriotism is the inspiration for about a quarter of the displays. The most famous object included is the 1876 Centennial Year gate, a weathered relic painted with stars and wavy striped slats from Robert Darling's farm near Antwerp, N.Y.

The museum's collection was launched in 1962 by the gift of the "Flag Gate," which has since gained the status of an American icon. Each side is slightly different with 37 stars on one side and 38 on the other, symbolic of the entry of a new state, Colorado, into the union in 1876. Such historical events are often encoded in patriotic folk art.

Memorials, often in the form of "mourning pictures" that were popular after the death of George Washington in 1799 offers another example of encoding by using images of a funeral urn or a weeping willow. The show includes a classical painted and gilded wooden urn only 4 inches high bearing a mezzotint picture of Washington.

After the American Revolution, which ended in 1783, the new nation seemed avid for symbols that would create a national identity. The American bald eagle, first pictured on the nation's Great Seal of 1782 as the national bird after Ben Franklin's candidate, the turkey, was rejected, began to embellish all sorts of objects.

One of the first, an eagle weathervane in heavy bell metal, possibly the work of Paul Revere's workshop in Boston, has a shield on the bird's breast decorated with stars and stripes. An eagle framed by a grapevine and clutching arrows and an olive branch in its talons decorates an 1810 "candlewick" bedspread, its raised design formed by thick cotton threads similar to those used for candle wicks.

Just as popular was a type of embroidery called "Liberty needlework," exemplified by a delicately worked depiction on silk touched up with watercolors of Miss Liberty carrying a liberty pole bearing an American flag and topped by a Roman-style liberty cap. It was stitched in 1808 by Lucina Hudson of South Hadley, Mass., daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran.

After the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor, Liberty holding aloft a torch became another common decorative motif. There is an 1886 Statue of Liberty weathervane of gilded copper mounted on a huge arrow in the show, and an elaborately carved 1890 dressing table made in St. Louis that bears a cutout silhouette of the statue and marquetry decorations including a spread-wing eagle standing on a furled American flag.

The national shield was applied to all sorts of objects. The most unusual one in the show is its depiction on an extra large wooden pipe bowl of the sort carved by Civil War soldiers and inscribed with the place names of battles in which they had fought. Probably made in Virginia in 1863, the pipe on exhibit is inscribed "Whitewash Swamp," "Malvern Hill," and "Fredericksburg."

Patriotic symbols also were popular as quilt designs. One in the museum's rich collection is known as the "Cross River Album Quilt" and was made in 1861 in Westchester County, N.Y., by 12 women who signed their needlework and included a flag design embroidered with the word "Union." Another made by Mary Baxter of Kearny, N.J. in 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American War, has a central shield bearing eight flags and a border of red and white stripes with six more flags.

The American Indian also became a national symbol, and the show includes the largest Indian weathervane that has come down to us. Made in 1890 of molded copper, it depicts an Delaware Indian chief known as Tammany and once topped the Imperial Order of Red Men's lodge in the Bronx section of New York City. The city's Democratic Party had adopted Tammany as its patron saint and was known as Tammany Hall.

A national personality known as Uncle Sam, based on a War of 1812 meat supplier named Sam Wilson, emerged in the late 19th century and was standardized by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Sam is represented in the show by a large whirligig of metal and painted wood made about 1920. It depicts the bearded old gent in a Yankee Doodle outfit and top hat riding a high wheel bicycle mounted on a boat-like base fitted with an airplane propeller.

Abraham Lincoln also became a national symbol. One of the most recent objects in the show is a 1975 image of Lincoln posed against an American flag by a self-taught black artist, Elijah Pierce of Columbus, Ohio. It is a combination of painting and relief sculpture in wood and is particularly striking because it depicts Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, as a black man.

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