Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum Celebrates a Birthday at New York's Winter Antiques Show
by Jody Taylor
An 18th-century fraktur created in Pennsylvania depicts George and Martha Washington. The folk art drawing, rendered in watercolor and ink, is attributed to a Sussel-Washington Artist whose work has been complimented for its sureness and precision.
Painted chests were commonly found in the homes of Germanic settlers in America. Like this one dated 1769, they were often painted with motifs symbolic of love, marriage, life and religion.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller acquired Baby in a Red Chair in 1931. The American artist of the oil-on-canvas work, believed to have been completed between 1810 and 1830, isn't identified.
What better way is there to celebrate the creativity and imagination of folk art than as part of the birthday festivities for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum?
And where better to celebrate than the 2017 Winter Antiques Show on New York City's Upper East Side — only blocks from where Abby Rockefeller and her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., once lived?
The show's annual loan exhibition promotes art, antiques and the collections of American museums. In 2001, The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg was the headliner.
In October 2015, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decided to pursue a return trip.
Ronald L. Hurst, the chief curator and vice president of collections, conservation and museums for the Foundation, made the first overture. Catherine Sweeney Singer, the executive director of the Winter Antiques Show, told him she was in the throes of preparing for the 2016 show but she'd be in touch in a few months.
When Hurst retrieved Singer's later voicemail, the wait was worth it.
"In the 63-year history of the Winter Antiques Show, only two institutions have been invited back twice," Hurst said.
One is New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other is Colonial Williamsburg.
Visitors to the 10-day event in late January will see 51 pieces of art from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, including several from Mrs. Rockefeller's own collection. Those pieces, which range from the iconic smiling infant in the portrait Baby in a Red Chair to a weathervane crafted in the shape of a snake, are from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries and were selected to illustrate the nature of the museum's collection, said Laura Barry, the Juli Grainger Curator of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture.
"We tried to stay true to the heart of Mrs. Rockefeller's collection," Barry said. "We're taking pieces that are highly recognizable — things that will make people say, 'Oh, that's from Colonial Williamsburg.' But we also wanted some surprises — things that will make people say, 'I didn't know you had that.'"
When Colonial Williamsburg first exhibited at the show in 2001, the theme was "The Best is Not Too Good for You," and many of the 48 pieces of art featured came from the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Furniture, such as a mahogany chest-on-chest made in Philadelphia by Thomas Affleck, made the trip, as did a cup made in the 17th century by potter Thomas Simpson. Writing on its rim provided the inspiration for the exhibition's title.
The Foundation's 2001 appearance celebrated the 75th anniversary of the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, and included the telegram John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sent to the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin approving the very first purchase of Williamsburg property. The Ludwell-Paradise House is the "antique" that Rockefeller's telegram authorized Goodwin to buy.
Colonial Williamsburg's return to the Winter Antiques Show also celebrates a milestone.
"In theory, it's much the same because we're celebrating anniversaries," Barry said, comparing the two Winter Antiques Show visits. "But this one is much more playful. There are a lot of stories, colors, angles."
And it's an opportunity to remind everyone the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is the oldest devoted entirely to the collection, exhibition and preservation of American folk art.
"It is enormous exposure to people who are interested in the museum and in material culture," Hurst said. "It's a visual, graphic experience, where people are dazzled by the remarkable objects. So that was our guide in selecting them."
Curators kept in mind the environmental conditions of the viewing space. Among the concerns: how much light the art would be exposed to and the difficulty in packing and shipping the objects. No panel pictures were selected, for example, because sharp temperature fluctuations could cause them to crack.
But the main focus was to remind those who visit the exhibition of the roots of folk art in America.
"These were objects from everyday life," Barry said. ""For the most part, these were created by people who were not academically trained and they created these objects for many different reasons. Some were for themselves while others were for a larger segment of society. They represented different people and their different stories. It's really the art of the people."
That art includes a carved watermelon serving as a sign for a roadside fruit and vegetable stand that a curator spotted. Other items include a late 18th-century chest with drawers decorated by Johannes Spitler, a furniture painter who plied his craft in the Massanutten area of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. One of the earliest depictions of an enslaved community, The Old Plantation, illustrates a West African stick dance.
The show's title, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum: Revolution & Evolution, has several meanings — and some point directly to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Barry said.
Abby Rockefeller was a revolutionary in her art collecting. She was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and she was also a pioneer in the collection of American folk art. The 424 pieces she gave to the Foundation were discoveries she made in the 1930s and 1930s. They included ancestor portraits, furniture, pottery, weathervanes, carvings and toys. She surrounded herself with more than 125 folk art objects at Bassett Hall, the house in Williamsburg she and her husband called home when they visited the Colonial capital.
"If I have to live with a thing," she once wrote, "I would like to have it good looking."
The collection has grown to nearly 7,000 objects, beginning with pieces from the 1720s and extending to the present day. Revolution & Evolution features objects from formative periods of collecting, including the 1930s, when Abby Rockefeller was among only a few female collectors. The objects also cover the 1950s, when American art began to become an academic pursuit, and the 1970s, when the Bicentennial rekindled an interest in early American art.
"The idea of revolution is that the collection continued to grow from the original 424 objects," Barry said. "We try to keep the collection true to her vision, but we also know art changes. And we respect that."