American folk painting, The Wiltshire collection

Editorial Staff Art

By RICHARD WOODWARD; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September 1978.

Paintings by America’s first artists afford an informative and entertaining view of the nation’s early years. Many of these painters received academic instruction at home or abroad, while others were either wholly untutored or obtained their training from nonacademic sources. The work of this latter group, the “folk painters,” provides an insight into native American culture and artistic talent. These painters have left an abundance of portraits recording the appearance and personalities of their sitters as well as other pictures that provide glimpses of the daily life of our first citizens. The spiritual life of the German-American is reflected in their fraktur (see Pl. IV).

Pl. I. Martha Payne (b. 1773), by the Payne limner, GoochlandCounty, Virginia, c. 1791. Oil on canvas, 43 7/8 by 37 ¾ inches. Martha Payne, the second child of Archer and Martha Dandridge Payne of Goochland County, was descended from several distinguished Virginia families. Her father was the son of Colonel John Payne, the owner of White Hall, who had represented Goochland County in the House of Burgesses from 1752 until 1768. In 1769 Archer Payne married Martha Dandridge, the daughter of Dorothea Spotswood, the lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1710 to 1722. The unidentified artist who painted this likeness executed portraits of ten members of the family. All but two are depicted outdoors, presumably on the grounds of New Market, Archer Payne’s plantation in Goochland County, and all are painted in predominantly earthy tones with spontaneous brush strokes. This portrait exhibits the background of foliage, atmospheric sky, and a tree trunk typical of the Payne portraits. The paintings illustrated are in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William E. Wiltshire III; photographs are by Ronald H. Jennings, Katherine Wetzel and Dennis McWaters. 

Devoted collectors of American folk art during the past half century have been of paramount importance in reconstructing the artistic and historical perspective offered by folk painters. In five busy and fruitful years Bill and Barbara Wiltshire of Richmond Virginia, have established an outstanding collection of folk paintings, a selection of which is presented in these pages and in a traveling exhibition.

Pl. IV. Geburts-und Taufschein for Elias Hamman, by Barbara Becker Hamman (1774-1850), ShenandoahCounty, Virginia, 1806. Watercolor on paper, 15 by 12 ½ inches. Like their countrymen in Pennsylvania, Virginia Germans made fraktur. This birth and baptismal record is for Elias Hamman, the son of Johannes and Barbara Becker Hamman, who was born August 29 and baptized on September 21, 1806. The certificate is attributed to his mother on the basis of its similarity to a sample of calligraphy bearing her maiden name (illustrated in Klaus Wust, Virginia Fraktur, Penmanship as Folk Art. She received her calligraphic training at the Strasburg (Virginia) German School, and is known to have created fraktur as early as 1786, when she was only twelve. 

The Wiltshires set out to bring together paintings that represent the diversity-both artistic and geographic-and the quality of the folk art produced between the struggle for independence and the end of the nineteenth century. Their collection well illustrates their success in this endeavor. It includes well known pictures, such as Dr. Rufus Hathaway’s portraits of Captain Sylvanus Sampson (Pl. III) and Sylvia Chuch Weston Sampson, and Isaac Sheffield’sMary Ann Wheeler (Pl. VIII). In addition, there are a number of paintings never exhibited before (see Pls. V, VI, XII). There are also paintings by newly discovered artists, such as the Payne limner who worked in Virginia in the late eighteenth century (see Pl. I), and newly discovered works by or attributed to artists who already have established reputations. Among the latter are a portrait of Major Andrew Billings attributed to the Beardsley limber and one of the Reverend Ebenezer Gay Sr. (Pl. II) attributed to Winthrop Chandler.

Pl. VIII. Mary Ann Wheeler (1833-1835), Isaac Sheffield (d. 1845), Stonington, Connecticut, 1835. Signed and dated on the reverse, Isaac Sheffield Pinxt. March 1835. Pil on Panel, 30 by 24 inches. The subject is identified on the back of the painting as the daughter of Homer and Mary Ann Roberts Wheeler of Stonington. This portrait was painted two months after her death. In it the artist has combined invention with rather jarring realism. He has pictured the child as considerably older than two years, but the toys scattered at her feet serve as reminders of her actual age. The ghostly coloring of her skin and polydactyl right hand appear to be unusually realistic details. The artist may have worked as an itinerant painter along the Connecticut coast before he settled in New London, where he painted portraits of sea captains and where he died. 

The American landscape and the human activities that attracted the folk artist’s attention, chiefly during the second half of the nineteenth century, are represented in the collection by several fine examples. Such paintings are not as common as portraits, but many of them carry strong overtones of portraiture. For instance, although Farm Scene, by L. Johnston (Pl. X), is spiced with amusing details, it is essentially a straightforward, schematic record of farm buildings and livestock, not a painting made for its aesthetic appeal. Likewise, King Bird (Pl. IX), by James Bard, was conceived primarily as a portrait of a ship. On the other hand, a few of the paintings, such as John Rasmussen’s Berks County Farm Scene (Pl. XI), reflect a greater awareness of the pictorial qualities of a setting.

Taken together, the Wiltshires’ collection provides an exciting view of American folk painting through works of consistently high quality.