The DAR Museum’s first-ever exhibition devoted entirely to folk art showcases a facet of the collection that evolved largely by accident. The DAR Museum was never intended to be a repository for folk art, but over time, as DAR members donated family heirlooms to the collection and the popularity of American folk art increased, a varied selection of folk art objects came to be represented among the museum’s holdings. “By, For, and Of the People: Folk Art and Americana at the DAR Museum,” on display October 7 through September 1, 2012, illustrates the talent and imagination of those who turned everyday objects into works of art.
While there are many different definitions for “folk art,” generally folk artists tend to be untrained in the “fine arts” or have made utilitarian objects decorative. Many of the objects on display are made by unknown craftsmen or artisans, but the exhibition also features work by celebrated folk artists. Beloved Grandma Moses, who only took to painting in her seventies, personally donated the landscape she painted when she was 93 years old, “The Battle of Bennington,” to the DAR a year after becoming a member. Decorated stoneware by master potter John Bell showcases how taking the time to make a utilitarian piece beautiful set him apart.
The unique exhibition’s varied yet cohesive presentation offers something for every visitor. Collectively, the items on display portray a sampling of American tastes and cultures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Typical household items salute the American craftsmen who united utility and innovative design, from the chair makers, tinsmiths and potters who enlivened their wares with painted flourishes to the blacksmiths who transformed simple iron trivets into decorative kitchenware.
The growing demand for portraits in the 19th century propelled many people, regardless of their background or training, to take up the trade. In addition to traditional portraits, the exhibition contains a selection of profile portraits and silhouettes, less expensive pieces often rendered by aspiring artists just beginning their careers. On display are works by artists from the Prior-Hamblin School, Ruth Henshaw Bascom, and John Brewster.
All of the pieces featured celebrate home and family. Samplers illustrate typical schoolgirl art, family records demonstrate beautiful calligraphy and decorative motifs, and children’s toys recall the simple joys of early American youngsters.
After examining the DAR Museum exhibition’s array of delicate detailing, memorable housewares, industrious ingenuity and captivating designs, visitors will walk away with a greater appreciation for the artistic merit of functional as well as decorative objects made by, for, and of the American people.