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Honesty, Simplicity, Beauty: American Folk Art

Over in the Big City, people are atwitter about the plans of the Museum of Modern Art to raze the American Folk Art Museum building. The Folk Art Museum sold the building after financial problems, but financial issues weren't the only problem the museum has faced in recent years. Its chairman for more than 25 years, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his extraordinary collection of folk art to the institution, but he also put works up as collateral to obtain $210 million in loans to purchase and operate jeweler Fred Leighton. Now he is in prison and bankrupt, and much of his collection will be auctioned at Sotheby's January 25, a sale that may be the most important Americana auction in history.

What is the appeal of folk art? It is beauty created by the self-taught eye. Often, it is beauty combined with utility; for example, a Pennsylvania fraktur birth certificate, while beautiful, was still a legal document. Samplers, so eagerly collected today, were part of schoolwork for young girls. Quilts kept country people warm on cold nights. Naïve paintings served as remembrances of family members in the years before photography. And yet, often hundreds of years later, these pieces created by the usually-untrained are revered as art and are often extraordinarily valuable. (Still, for the price of one granite Popeye by Jeff Koons, you could acquire an entire collection of folk art.)

American folk art in particular provides an invaluable glimpse at the lives of ordinary working country people in the early years of our nation, information we might not have any other way. We can discern what was important to these people by the events commemorated in a Shaker gift drawing or by the objects pictured in a portrait by a traveling limner.

The watercolor portraits above were painted by itinerant self-taught artist Jacob Maentel around 1820 in Jonestown, Pennsylania. Not much is known about this German-born immigrant, except that he painted about 200 small-scale portraits in watercolor. Many of his pictures record the decoration of domestic interiors, as in the Boston-style mirrors shown in these portraits. However, it is also possible that Maentel just added the wallpaper and mirrors that were pictured in a printed catalog (maybe not so much for the honesty there!). Scholarship may one day give us the answers to these questions, but in the meantime, we can appreciate the pictures as dazzling works of art.
· Visual Grace: Important American Folk Art from the Collection of Ralph O. Esmerian [Sothebys]
· MoMA Unveils its Glassy Redesign; Will Raze Folk Art Museum [CurbedNY]