The exhibition American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900 was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from November 30, 1932, through January 14, 1933. Presenting American folk art as part of a continuous artistic tradition reaching back to the eighteenth century, it was the most comprehensive, illuminating display of the subject held up to that time.
Though lent anonymously, all but two of the works on view were from the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., heir to the Standard Oil fortune.1 Mrs. Rockefeller had acquired most of her folk art within the short span of the year before the exhibition. She became a folk art collector in a roundabout way: much to her husband’s dismay, she had for some years been a buyer of modern American art (she was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art) and in 1928 became a customer of the Downtown Gallery on West Thirteenth Street, run by Edith Gregor Halpert (1900–1970). Halpert’s close friend and adviser Holger Cahill (1887–1960), an original, insightful thinker and writer in the New York art world of the 1920s and 1930s, convinced both women that folk art was an integral part of the American artistic tradition and that folk paintings and sculpture were the “ancestors” of modern pieces. Halpert began to offer folk as well as modern art-she and her partner Berthe Kroll Goldsmith, in partnership with Cahill, formed the American Folk Art Gallery, which in 1931 took up a small space above the Downtown Gallery. Abby Rockefeller then began to collect folk paintings and sculpture in earnest.2
Throughout the 1920s Cahill had worked in various capacities at the Newark Museum for the remarkably progressive library and museum director John Cotton Dana (1856–1929), who was a pioneer in finding art in everyday objects. After Dana’s death in 1929, Cahill was asked to organize an exhibition for the Newark Museum; he produced American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists, on view from November 4, 1930, to February 1, 1931. In traveling throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states to search out works for this and the succeeding show, American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen, held at Newark from October 20, 1931, through January 31, 1932, Cahill acquired valuable knowledge of collectors, dealers, and other sources of folk art in those regions. This knowledge was vital in the subsequent success of the American Folk Art Gallery, which could offer top-notch pieces for sale thanks to Cahill’s connections.3 Edith Halpert gave Mrs. Rockefeller first choice of the best things that came in, and the Rockefeller collection benefited accordingly. Abby Rockefeller didn’t rely on Halpert and Cahill to make her decisions about what to buy, however. Both her art secretary, Elinor Robinson, and Cahill said that Abby made the decisions herself. Some years later Cahill wrote Alice Winchester, editor of The Magazine ANTIQUES, about “the extraordinary quality of the works of art [Abby Rockefeller] collected. This was due, in part, to the fact that she had good advice, but it was due mainly to her taste, her enthusiasm and real love for the material. I don’t believe Mrs. Rockefeller collected just to make collections. Whatever she did in the field of art was based on love, and on knowledge which she pursued with unending patience.”4
By the time Cahill was appointed acting director of the Museum of Modern Art and proposed The Art of the Common Man as a companion to an already scheduled exhibition of academic American art of the period 1862 to 1932, Mrs. Rockefeller had amassed an outstanding folk art collection. Opinions were divided on whether she should be named as the owner of the collection or whether it should be shown anonymously. Abby wrote her son Nelson that “Mrs. Halpert is opposed to [using my name] because she hopes to go on selling me things. She thinks that the minute it is known I have a collection the price of Early American things will go up. I don’t see how it could go up any higher than she puts [it already].” Nelson replied that he feared “Mrs. Halpert has let her business instinct slightly affect her judgment,” adding that he thought it “would be extremely nice for you to allow the Museum to use your name.” A. Conger Goodyear, president of the museum, thought so, too, but in the end the collection was shown anonymously.5The exhibition opened with a black-tie reception on November 29, 1932. With its impressive display of paintings, sculpture, and related objects, The Art of the Common Man was the first show to introduce this hitherto forgotten and neglected, but vital, component of the American artistic tradition to the greater American public. Goodyear wrote Mrs. Rockefeller that “the exhibition of American Folk Art has attracted a great deal of favorable comment, and the catalog prepared by Mr. Cahill has had an especially enthusiastic reception.”6
The exhibition opened with a black-tie reception on November 29, 1932. With its impressive display of paintings, sculpture, and related objects, The Art of the Common Man was the first show to introduce this hitherto forgotten and neglected, but vital, component of the American artistic tradition to the greater American public. Goodyear wrote Mrs. Rockefeller that “the exhibition of American Folk Art has attracted a great deal of favorable comment, and the catalog prepared by Mr. Cahill has had an especially enthusiastic reception.”6
The art critics of the New York Times, New York Sun, and New York Evening Post were complimentary and, confirming Goodyear’s report to Abby Rockefeller, especially admired Cahill’s catalogue introduction. Edward Alden Jewell wrote in the Times: “Mr. Cahill’s essay in the catalogue should be read by all who visit the exhibition. It furnishes a vivid background and, together with biographical notes, makes much clearer to us today the spirit that urged these largely anonymous artists to creation and the struggles they faced in their zealous though for the most part untutored efforts.”7
After closing in New York in mid-January 1933, the show traveled to six other venues, much increasing its influence.8 When it opened in Philadelphia in February 1933, however, Dorothy Grafly set forth an alternate opinion in the Philadelphia Public Ledger: “While primitive art…may be fascinating, while it may have genuine historical value, it belongs to the historical museum rather than to the art gallery….Put forth as art per se…it develops in the public mind an erroneous impression, and tends not to elevate but to defame all art endeavor in the minds of those who think no farther than to laugh at what has become so utterly unfamiliar.”9
Yet open-minded exhibition goers found much to appreciate in the works on view, and occasionally encountered pieces they deemed remarkable. Among these were Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom (Fig. 11) and Joseph Pickett’s Manchester Valley (Fig. 2). Cahill had found paintings by both Hicks and Pickett during his folk art-hunting trips through Pennsylvania, and he considered these artists his personal discoveries. Hicks was known locally in Bucks County, but he was otherwise little known until Cahill introduced his work to a wider audience, first with Halpert through the American Folk Art Gallery, and then through the inclusion of his paintings in the Common Man show. Today examples of his work bring millions of dollars at auction.But it wasn’t monetary value Cahill saw in Hicks’s paintings, it was “compositional qualities of a high order…innocence of vision and simplicity and freshness of expression…and knowledge, too. The knowledge was limited to what Hicks had learned in the carriage shop, but it was clear and well-tried knowledge, solidly founded in tradition and not in theory.”10 Cahill’s major point about folk art—one missed or ignored by the majority of the genre’s earliest collectors—was that folk paintings, sculpture, and other objects were the work most often of craftsmen trained in medieval shop traditions, and later also of amateurs.
Hicks was an outstanding example of the shop-trained artist-craftsman, having served a seven-year apprenticeship to learn the trade of coach and ornamental painting. Of such training Cahill wrote: “It was a tradition of craftsmanship which grew out of the handling of tools and materials, rather than an academic tradition passed on by schools….The vocation of the painter also had a good deal to do with his style. House-painters and signpainters stuck to the flat colors and precision ofoutline which they had learned in their trades. Carriage painters went in for conventionalized decoration. The specialist in the ‘limning of effigies’ and the amateur with a little schooling went in for more modeling, and attempted realistic effects.”11Joseph Pickett, whose Manchester Valley Jewett of the New York Times called extraordinary, was a carpenter. Cahill wrote that it “appears that he was entirely self-taught, and that his work is the expression of sheer genius…. He brought the skills of good joinery and sound construction to his work, Cahill said, and although he “drew like a child” and “knew nothing of perspective,” his intuitive understanding of the uses of space, design, and color, and his sense of movement “place such a work as Manchester Valley among the masterpieces of American folk art.”12
The paintings section was the largest in the Common Man exhibition, and it included, besides portraits and landscapes, mourning pictures, sailing pictures, inn signs, and decorative paintings in oil, watercolor, and pastel as well as paintings on velvet, linen, glass, and other materials. Drawings, too, were included. In the sculpture division were carvings of all kinds, “whittled for the fun of it by farmers, carpenters, and sailors,” as well as pieces made by trained wood- and metalworkers. Among sculptures of both types were toys, ships’ figureheads, cigar-store Indians, weather vanes, molds, decoys, and a variety of other objects, including headstones from graves. It was in the field of American sculpture that Cahill felt that what he called “conventional” art had suffered particularly. “From the middle of the seventeenth century up to the Civil War,” he wrote, “there were in New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the country, many carvers who were closer to the great tradition of their art than were the professional sculptors.” Artisans and craftsmen, he stressed, “maintained the standards of craft and shop practice, helped keep alive the fundamentals of tradition in times when there were no masters, and their work has furnished the background for the development of masters. That their work was not the background for the development of American art as we know it today is one of the accidents of our art history.”13Cahill saw, as no one else did, that artworks in the craft tradition—as well as contributions by both trained and untrained amateurs—were vital parts of the American art-history story and needed to be recognized. American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America 1750-1900 was a brilliant beginning. It introduced Americans to the folk, or in Cahill’s words, “the unconventional side of the American tradition in the fine arts.” It showed them in more than 175 carefully chosen paintings, sculptures, and related objects, and described to them in a perceptive and readable illustrated catalogue that they could take home, refer to, and study for years, what had been missing from the American art story. Whether or not there was unanimous agreement on the importance of folk art in that story, the category could no longer be ignored. Cahill’s compelling essay has shaped our thinking ever since. In the more than eighty years since the Art of the Common Man, there has not been another folk-art exhibition of such seminal importance.14
I would like to thank Laura Pass Barry, Juli Grainger Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, Colonial Williamsburg, for her help in researching the files at AARFAM; and Ruth Wolfe, independent writer, editor, and lecturer, for her help in thinking about this article.
The illustrations for this article have been chosen from among those Holger Cahill selected for illustration in the catalogues to his two Newark exhibitions and the Common Man exhibition and that he discussed in the texts of the exhibition catalogues and in the many lectures he gave on the subject of folk art during the 1930s.
1 The two works that did not belong to Mrs. Rockefeller were Primitive Horse, a wood carving then in Cahill’s collection, and The Buffalo Hunter, a painting that Cahill and Dorothy Miller discovered, probably in York, Pennsylvania. Miller and Cahill couldn’t afford it and recommended it to Edith Halpert, who acquired the painting for the American Folk Art Gallery (AFAG). Miller recollected that “it was not catalogued in the 1932 exhibition as it was a last-minute addition to the show.” Dorothy C. Miller to Mabel Swan, July 15, 1957, D. C. Miller papers, box 20, “American Folk Art/Correspondence, etc., 1943-68” folder, Archives of American Art (AAA). 2 Unless otherwise noted, information in this and the following paragraphs is from Elizabeth Stillinger, A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art, 1876-1976 (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2011), parts 2 and 3. 3 Cahill was sometimes accompanied on his scouting trips by Halpert or Miller, whom he had met at the Newark Museum in the mid-1920s and whom he married in 1938. Both women sometimes went folk-art foraging for the AFAG alone, as well. 4 Carolyn J. Weekley interview with Elinor Robinson Bradshaw, Williamsburg, Virginia, October 25, 1984, transcript in E. Robinson file, BTR “Collector” files, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (AARFAM), Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia. Holger Cahill to Alice Winchester, January 18, 1951, Cahill papers, box 5, first correspondence folder (A-F), AAA. 5 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to Nelson Rockefeller, July 16, 1932; Nelson Rockefeller to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, July 18, 1932; A. Conger Goodyear to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., July 8, 1932; all AARFAM files, courtesy Laura Pass Barry. 6 A. Conger Goodyear to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, December 12, 1932, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller papers, record group 2, OMR, series I, AAR correspondence, box 7, folder 101, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York. 7 November 29, 1932, Cahill papers, box 4, clippings folder, AAA. 8 The itinerary for the exhibition was the Pennsylvania (now Philadelphia) Museum of Art, February 4 to March 4, 1933; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, April 1 to April 30, 1933; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 10 to November 5, 1933; William Rockhill Nelson Gallery (now Nelson-Atkins Museum) of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, March 1 to March 30, 1934; Greenwich Society of Artists, Greenwich, Connecticut, May 26 to June 11, 1934; and the Westchester Community County Center (now the Westchester County Center), White Plains, New York, June 20 to July 9, 1934. From January 16 to March 3, 1968, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center (now Museum) presented an exhibition entitled American Folk Art: The Exhibition of 1932, which the catalogue described as “A reassembly of the first exhibition of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s collection of American folk art held at the Museum of Modern Art from November 30, 1932, until January 15, 1933.” The catalogue includes a brief history of Mrs. Rockefeller’s folk art collection by Peter A. G. Brown, then AARFAC’s director, excerpts from Holger Cahill’s original Common Man catalogue essay, and a checklist of the 150 objects on view. There are no illustrations except for four color plates-one of the exterior of the museum, Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Yorktown, Baby in Red Chair, and The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. 9 Philadelphia Public Ledger, February 5, 1933, Cahill papers, box 4, clippings folder, AAA. 10 Holger Cahill, Maximilien Gauthier, Jean Cassou, Dorothy C. Miller, et al., Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America (New York, 1938), p. 100. 11 “American Folk Art,” The American Mercury, vol. 24 (September 1931), p. 42. 12 Holger Cahill, “American Folk Art,” The Art of the Common Man (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1932), p. 16. 13 Ibid., p. 7. 14 Ibid., p. 3. Holger Cahill continued to advise, collect for, and work with Abby Rockefeller on her folk art collection after the close of the Common Man show, and he helped her select more than 250 objects from her collection to lend to Colonial Williamsburg. These objects, accompanied by a brochure Cahill wrote, went on exhibit at the Ludwell Paradise House in Williamsburg in March 1935. That same year Cahill became head of the Federal Art Project of the WPA and in that capacity presided over the Index of American Design, which he described as “a pictorial history of the everyday features of a nation’s culture, filled with intimate details of changing manners and customs” (typescript, Cahill papers, AAA).
ELIZABETH STILLINGER is a writer, researcher, and editor whose latest book is A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art 1876–1976.