Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Business of Art at the American Folk Art Museum, Part 2

With my new friend Captain Jinks
Honestly, it was my intention to write only one post about the Business of Art exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum. My mind is so abuzz with all the things I saw in New York that I'll be writing for weeks. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and the shots from this show are just so much fun. So off we go.

The second portion of the exhibit focused on business-related art from the artists' perspective. From the 1820s through the Civil War, New York was home to the shipbuilding industry. Opportunities abounded for artists as well, who created figureheads and moldings for the ships. Carved show figures become popular, like this Captain Jinks.

Native American Woman Show Figure with Rose
(attributed to Samuel Robb)
Samuel Robb was one of the premiere show figure artists of the day. His work ranged from tobacco figures to circus wagons to ventriloquist dummies. It is thought Captain Jinks may have been carved by Thomas J. White, one of Robb's proteges. Whoever the carver was knew Robb well, as the Captain's face is that of Robb and he is sporting Robb's National Guard uniform. (Jinks was a folk legend of the day known for his laziness. Hopefully Robb took the "tribute" as the joke it was intended to be.)

Robb is thought to have carved this Native American Woman show figure that likely stood outside a tobacco shop. Native Americans became associated with tobacco products in the 17th century after English explorers were introduced to the product during visits to Virginia. While tobacco figures typically held a handful of cigars or a box of tobacco, this woman holds a delicately carved rose. This embellishment is a nod to Robb's wife, whose headstone he engraved with a rose.

Armoured Horse by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein 
(1912-1917)  -- Their company built the actual carousels 
as well, one of which still operates in Central Park. 
With the advent of electric signs in the late 19th century, the use of show figures for marketing purposes became outdated. What was a wood carving artist to do?

Luckily, the rise of the carousel trade coincided with the decline in the popularity of show figures. Some wood carvers gravitated to this niche art form, with many working in the "Coney Island style" of carousel carving. The style -- with its bright colors and jewels and gold leaf -- became synonymous with carousel horses across the country. Just think back to your own merry-go-round rides as (or with) a child.

1909 Hupmobile Weathervane 
Not all artists of the era created works in wood for local businesses. Another way for businesses to attract attention was to have a weathervane proudly sitting atop their shop.

Weathervanes were not only purchased by commercial enterprises, though. They are, after all, an attractive decoration for any property. As touring cars became a more common mode of transportation, many homeowners converted their barns into garages. What better way to announce their new status than with a Hupmobile weathervane in place of one featuring a cow?  (In case you're wondering, the term "touring car" refers to an open four seater popular in the U.S. from the early 1900s through the 1920s.)

With that, another successful visit to the American Folk Art Museum was complete. The Business of Art exhibit runs through July 28 if you happen to be in New York. For more information about the museum, click here.

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