Paul S. D’Ambrosio, Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum
Colonel Sellers Trade Figure, unidentified artist, ca. 1875, Sellersville, Pennsylvania, wood and paint. Fenimore Art Museum, gift of Stephen C. Clark, formerly collection of Jean and Howard Lipman
Cock Calling the Dawn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953), 1923, oil on canvas. Columbus Museum of Art, gift of Ferdinand Howland
Bear and Pears, artist unidentified, ca. 1825–1835, oil on wood panel. Fenimore Art Museum, gift of Stephen C. Clark, formerly collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Flirtation by Robert Laurent (1890–1970), 1921, wood. Private collection
Girl in White with Cat, attributed to Zedekiah Belknap (1781–1858), probably Vermont, oil on canvas. Collection of Barbara and David Krashes. This portrait is depicted, in the upper, left-hand corner, of Bernard Karfiol’s Making Music.
Making Music by Bernard Karfiol (1886–1952), Ogunquit, Maine, 1938, oil on canvas. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, promised gift of Bunty and Tom Armstrong
Paul D’Ambrosio will explore the interplay between avant-garde American artists and the American folk art tradition at the turn of the 20th century. To the trained Modernists, folk art vindicated their aesthetic principles, essentially an emphasis on formal design over pictorial realism — and folk art evidenced the essential Americanness of this approach to making art. His lecture will explore the major artists, including Elie Nadelman, Robert Laurent and William and Marguerite Zorach, as well as noted collectors, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Jean Lipman. Together, artists and collectors rescued an American visual tradition from obscurity and made it relevant to the 20th century.
The art world experienced a revolution in the early 20th century. Representational art, which had dominated the West for nearly 500 years, was tossed aside. Recognizable subjects, three-dimensional forms and subtle shading gave way to early 20th century Modernism characterized by boldly colored,simplified shapes, flattened on to the picture plane. The shared aesthetic was described by William Matthew Prior’s oft-quoted newspaper advertisement that “[p]ersons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow, at quarter price.” Folk art influenced Modernism, and also obtained increased status from the connection.
Modernist artists, and collectors, returned from Paris, the center of the Modernist movement, to seek out an American art tradition. They found their inspiration in pre-20th century folk art. Folk portraits, weathervanes, decoys, hooked rugs and country furniture were relatively easy to find. These objects had the advantage of being cheap and quintessentially American.
Several Modernist artists took their yearning to be part of an American artisan tradition one step further. They sought a deeper rapport with American folk artists by employing those artists’ methods of working with indigenous materials. They produced paintings on glass, tinsel pictures, hooked rugs and needlework. They carved sculpture directly in the wood with no preliminary models. Some young artists borrowed subject matter from folk paintings and carvings. Dr. D’Ambrosio’s presentation will include folk art that Modernists collected, Modernist art that was inspired by folk art and vintage photographs documenting how artists and collectors lived with, and displayed, their folk art.
Paul D’Ambrosio has risen from assistant curator to president and chief executive officer of the New York State Historical Association and the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York (“SUNY”) College at Cortland, a master’s degree in museum studies from the Cooperstown graduate program at SUNY-Oneonta and a doctorate in American studies from Boston University. He has been an adjunct professor in the Cooperstown program since 1984.
Dr. D’Ambrosio’s publications include Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed (2012), the subject of his 2013 presentation to the Forum. He also wrote The World of John Brewster Jr., 1776–1854 (2006); Ralph Fasanella’s America (2001), the subject of his doctoral dissertation; and Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association (1987) with Charlotte Emans. He has also contributed essays to both volumes of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (2007, 2011). He has produced catalogues for numerous exhibitions which he has organized: Folk Art and American Modernism (2015); Winslow Homer: The Nature and Rhythm of Life (2014); Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed (2012); A Window into Edward Hopper (2011); John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women (2010); and America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800–1900 (2009).