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GETTING INTIMATE
AT YALE

by N.F. Karlins
 
Tired of edgy, ironic and in-your-face art?

Then run to New Havenís Yale University Art Gallery before August 26, 2007, for the endearing folk art show "Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana."

This one-room exhibition contains 39 works, mostly two dimensional and small, along with a few pieces of furniture and sculpture, all of them expressions of friendships or familial love. The show also provides a modest first glimpse at one of the largest and finest private collections of 18th- and 19th-century American folk art and Americana in the country.

First-rate portraits abound. A charming and still-vibrant watercolor by Joseph H. Davis of three-year old Martha Nelson Furber (1835) was painted as a gift to her favorite teacher.

In an oil portrait attributed to Sheldon Peck, the son of an Illinois orchard owner, wears one of the artistís typically dour expressions. Made around 1849, it features a trompe líoeil frame. It was made as a keepsake for the childís family. The lad lived to inherit his fatherís lands and expanded them.

A lift-top chest with drawer, attributed to Robert Crossman of Massachusetts from 1731, is remarkable for having its original paint, with flowers, trailing vines and birds artfully applied across the front. It surely was considered an important piece of furniture from the time of its making, probably as part of a dowry.

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the exhibition are the intimate reminders of friendship that women exchanged at a time when many would not survive early childhood and others would die as the result of complications from one of many pregnancies.†

Intimacy was often betokened by snippets of hair, found here in friendship tokens, hair jewelry and most notably in the spectacular Mrs. Sarah M. Tracyís Memory Book, which the owner hand-made with watercolors, hair from many friends and writings. While the individual watercolors may not overwhelm, the whole can be viewed as an extraordinary early artist book that spanned 30 years in the making.

Jane Katcher, a now-retired pediatric radiologist and philanthropist, has been quietly putting together her ever-burgeoning collection with the help of the noted Connecticut dealers David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles. Since it has more than 200 pieces, the tiny show at Yale -- which hopes to eventually receive the entire collection -- can only hint at its many, often rare, treasures.

Whether or not youíre able to see the show at Yale, I recommend spending some time with the huge coffee-table size book of the same title that Marquand Books in association with Yale University Press has published to go along with the exhibition. Itís one of the most sumptuously photographed volumes ever produced on American folk art and Americana. The color is miraculous, and full page spreads are common. The many detail shots permit close scrutiny of exciting items, small and large.

The book, Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, contains more than 200 pieces, with more than 100 previously unpublished, ranging from American drawings, paintings, sculpture and furniture to English ceramics commonly used here, like mocha and spatter wares. Itís a must-have for collectors and scholars, who can keep up with new research about the collection and recent additions at the web site www.janekatchercollection.com.

Every piece is mentioned in absorbing scholarly articles that, while not encyclopedic, provide an introduction to the breadth of American folk art.†Even someone with a slight interest, I suspect, will learn a great deal and be dazzled by the photos.†

"Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana" would make a great gift for just about anyone.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.