In the gallery at Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, two portraits hang side-by-side, "The Artist" and "The Artist's Wife." They were painted in 1815. Not much else is known about them, not even the name of the artist, who ironically immortalized himself without identifying himself.
"Unidentified Artist" is the most common attribution in the museum's new exhibit, "Art of the Everyman," reflecting one of the most predominant features of American folk art: The artists often weren't trained professionals.
They were amateurs, itinerant portraitists, self-taught landscape painters, people who just decided one day to take up art, like Grandma Moses or Eunice Griswold Pinney of Simsbury, who painted a charming but slightly ghoulish watercolor imagining what her memorial service would look like.
"Folk art has a real breadth of concept. People weren't always doing it under patronage or as a commission," said Amy Kurtz Lansing, co-curator with Ben Coleman of the exhibit. "This is what people love about folk art, the quirky, unusual subjects that bring back to life extraordinary people."
Folk art comes with many preconceived notions, stylistic themes that are taken for granted: large, flat areas of color, simplified anatomy, repeated patterns. The Griswold exhibit, culled from the large folk-art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., features many paintings that conform to those expectations, but also more varied artworks: a barley-threshing fork, an 1833 quilt, an 1883 mass-produced grasshopper-shaped weather vane, a wooden sign from and unknown "Chadwick's Inn" and a knife box whose meaning is inexplicable.
All, however, harken back to what 20th- and 21st-century Americans perceive to be the country's simple, uncomplicated past. "The idealized vision of folk artists is that they are really sincere," Kurtz Lansing said.
She used as an example Edward Hicks, whose "Peacable Kingdom" (1830-35) is a simplistic view of animal-human interaction, surrounded by a poem about beasts and men getting along. "As well as being a painter, Hicks was a minister. The sincerity of his religious beliefs fed his art. There is a real admiration for the uncomplicated sincerity of his belief."
Three varieties of folk-art landscape are hung together. The first, "Inhuman Anti-Rent Murder," from 1852, is an overview of the aftermath of a protest killing, complete with text on the page sympathetic to the landowner rather than the renters. The panoramic over-mantel "The Van Bergen Farm" (circa 1733) is a tranquil depiction of the busy farm of a Pennsylvania Dutch settler, including Native Americans and black slaves. Thomas Chambers' "View of Cold Spring and Mount Taurus from Fort Putnam," circa 1850, is more ambitious, using intense colors and repeated shapes to evoke a majestic vista while downplaying details.
"This has the feel of Hudson River School, but it's coming from a totally different place," Kurtz Lansing said. "He didn't go there. He relied upon prints from books." The rediscovery of Chambers in 1942 led him to be labeled "The First American Modern."
Many of the landscape artists used drawings as their inspirations, including Grandma Moses, whose "Sugaring Off" (1945) was inspired by a Currier & Ives print.
"There is an idealized vision of Grandma Moses. She clipped out images of rural life and painted them. It's not a pure memory filtering through these nostalgic images," Kurtz Lansing said. "But there is a sincerity and charm to her work, and there was a thirst in that era to get back in touch with rural life."
'Thistles & Crowns'
An accompanying exhibit in the back of the Krieble Gallery is of five Connecticut-made painted chests, all made on the Connecticut shoreline between 1710 and 1730. Coleman is the curator of the "Thistles & Crowns" exhibit.
"The chests made in Saybrook and Guilford was the most significant group of vernacular furniture made in Connecticut," Coleman said. "It was a short-lived regional style."
Connecticut chest-makers adapted furniture styles from British furniture makers and their decorative patterns from a variety of British influences, which all referenced contemporary political movements.
"In the early 18th century, Great Britain was formed by the kingdoms of England and Scotland by the Acts of Union," Coleman said. "The thistle is an emblem of Scotland and the rose of England. At the same time, English monarchs claimed historical dominion over France, even though France had something to say about that. That's where the fleur de lis come from. It's fascinating that this turns up this way on furniture in Connecticut."
"ART OF THE EVERYMAN: AMERICAN FOLK ART FROM THE FENIMORE ART MUSEUM" AND "THISTLES AND CROWNS: THE PAINTED CHESTS OF THE CONNECTICUT SHORE" will be at Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until Sept. 21. Admission, hours and other details: www.flogris.org.