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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Early American Painting

From the Alderman/Bissel Tavern,
Sturbridge, Mass. 1760
Those of us with both an artistic and a historic bent tend to high-mindedly consider portraiture as the earliest type of American painting. In fact, it's not. In the 1640s, Connecticut and other colonies passed legislation demanding that every community have licensed "public accommodations" or inns for weary travellers to rest their heads. A problem arose however when those weary travellers rode into town and tried to find such accommodations. The biggest house in town would look to be the most likely candidate but often was not the local inn. Before long, these inns were required to also put up signs, some painted by the owners, others by locals with a steady hand and a sharp eye, and others by itinerant artists providing the service. These were the earliest American artists, long before anyone in the colonies could afford even the simplest portraits.

Apparently,  few "ladies" did much traveling during 
the colonial era (depending upon whether the
misspelled word was "horse" or "whores").

What would you think, riding into an early colonial town, seeing a sign hanging before a roadside inn that read: "Entertainment for Man and Hors"? It might help to know that "entertainment" back then referred to meals and lodging, and the word "Hors" was an obvious misspelling The work was that of itinerant artist, Bill Rice, and is the earliest, un-repainted colonial era sign to survive. It's been dated from 1749 (despite what the sign itself says). You won't find his paintings in the National Gallery of Art, or even the Smithsonian. You'd have to travel to Hartford, to the museum of the Connecticut Historical Society, which has the largest collection of sign art in the world.
Based on such signage, 
a colonial traveler might
find it difficult to tell an
inn from a livery stable.

Of the thousands of signs from the colonial era, only about one hundred survive. And as interesting, insightful, and enlightening as they might be to daily life during that era, they are a nightmare for curators. First, the different wood panels, especially having been out in the weather for a good part of their working life, presents all sorts of varying preservation problems. Second, paints used during that period would, today, hardly be worthy of the name. They faded, often at different rates, depending upon the color, chipped, pealed, and as a result, were subject to frequent repainting, by other artists or the artistically inept owners themselves; often using totally different messages, even for totally different purposes. Thus, images from several different eras compete with one another, forcing curators to make agonizing judgements as to which layer is most important. Sometimes the most artistically important layer is not the most historically important. In effect, to preserve one layer, they're often forced to destroy the sign art from other times.

1 comment:

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