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The Urge to Picture

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HEARTFELT/HANDMADE: EARLY ILLINOIS FOLK ART

at the State of Illinois Art Gallery

Cameras have made it a simple and convenient matter to obtain pictures of people and places, yet they have also meant a certain loss for most people: the experience of making pictures. Gone from everyday life is the kind of patient looking that drawing or painting a picture requires; gone too is the rewarding process of deciding what to include, what to omit, and what to emphasize. Prior to accessible photography, these and other creative experiences were far more common, as surviving pieces of folk art demonstrate. Examples of the many paintings, sculptures, and utilitarian objects made by rural 19th-century Illinois residents are featured in an exhibit that continues through March 13 at the State of Illinois Art Gallery.

Unlike many 20th-century folk artists, whose images often feature unexpected arrangements of form and color and communicate intensely personal visions, these mostly self-taught 19th-century artists (many of them farmers) worked within the traditions of landscape painting and portraiture. And their goals were relatively straightforward: they sought to portray, usually in great detail, important aspects of their lives. This is true, for example, of British-born Edward Richardson Jr., whose creative output is represented in this show by four paintings: a self-portrait, a portrait of Queen Anne, and two portraits of his infant daughter Charlotta.

In his Self-Portrait (c 1850), painted when he was about 25 years old, Richardson radiates self-confidence. He presents himself as a serious painter accompanied by an easel, a palette, and a book on drawing and perspective. Yet there are technical difficulties that reveal a lack of training or experience--the table he sits at slopes downward at an alarming angle, its objects threatening to slide right off, and his fingers are as stiff as the pencil they hold. Nevertheless the portrait sustains interest, communicating as it does an undaunted personality.

Richardson's portrait of his daughter Charlotta, painted around 1840, is a testament to the good-natured spirit of both the artist and his subject. The baby and her crib, seen from above, fill most of the panel; in the dark area remaining a bit of patterned carpet is visible. The odd point of view and close cropping seem chosen to avoid problems of perspective and foreshortening. Yet these choices fit the subject beautifully--Richardson places the viewer in the typical position of a baby's admirer, bent over the crib for a closer look. The stiff, awkward rendering of the baby's limbs and gown hardly detract from the picture's charm, which is ultimately concentrated in her carefully painted smile. The genuine affection evident in this painting only increases the pathos of the neighboring Death Portrait of Charlotta Richardson, painted just two years later.

Paintings of adults and children dominate the show, though there are a couple of portrait sculptures by Frank Pierson Richards--carved and painted wood figures of General Grant and Governor Emerson. A painting by an unknown artist, Portrait of Girl With Dog, contains technical disparities common to much of the work, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Some of the details, especially in the jewelry the girl wears, are painted with great interest and control, yet overall the treatment of forms is naive--the girl's eyes, for example, are too large in relation to the rest of her face, drift to the left, and are not convincingly placed in their sockets. The puppy's legs and paws are tubular and limp, as though made of rubber. Even so, there's something riveting about the little girl's steady gaze and about the entire picture--we feel strongly the intense will of the painter to describe her.

While this unknown painter, like Richardson, had obviously received some training in the use of oil paints, others seem completely self-taught. Birth and Marriage Certificate, painted in watercolor on paper by John B. Baker in 1846, is clearly the work of an amateur artist. Linear design takes precedence in this portrait of his daughter, Kezia Eve: forms are flat and described by line and repeated patterns rather than by tones. But the repetition of fluid curved edges has a certain elegance and Baker's renderings of fabric textures are simple and inventive: almond shapes arranged like petals for the lacy bodice, repeated dabs of paint for the dress itself. It's not surprising that Baker should have marked an important milestone in his child's life with a picture. But, interestingly, he waited until three years after her marriage to make it and, according to family members, misspelled his son-in-law's name.

A love of nature is evident in both paintings and crafts. Most of the landscapes are characterized by broad, sweeping views built up out of many tiny details. It seems as though not a single tree or puff of smoke was omitted in an unknown painter's Railroad in East Dubuque; in N.C. Thompson's Reaper Works (attributed to George J. Robertson of Rockford), no detail of the manufacturing buildings, the men at work, and the river in the foreground is ignored. Though in this painting the perspective is off in the windows of the central building, still each tiny pane of glass receives a whisper-thin line of white paint to mark its existence. The strong morning light is especially well described; great care is given to its play on the surfaces of buildings, bridges, and piles of wood.

Light is also an impressive element in an autumn landscape titled Three Trees (Tree Trunk Portrait of Lincoln) (1880) by Aaron Francis Phillips of Petersburg. With its low horizon line, this view of spindly trees near a stream emphasizes the sky--its tones modulate subtly, evoking the steady but soft light of a cool, cloudy day. Not content to paint a mere landscape, Phillips added to one of the trees a profile portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

In some pieces nature is abstracted and stylized, as in Richards's elaborate hand-carved oak mantelpiece, which bears a profusion of berries, vines, flowers, and leaves. Spiraling vines and leaves also decorate one of the most unusual pieces in the show, a carving of the Lord's Prayer cut from 1/8-inch-thick holly wood with a foot-powered scroll saw by Frederick William Risser of Strasburg. Framed under glass and placed against brown velvet, the piece, which utilizes both positive and negative lettering and images and a different type of lettering for each line of the prayer, is a masterpiece of intricate design. Its words are contained within a pointed arch that is itself set within a rectangle; the borders of these elements are decorated with angels, stars, crosses, and plant motifs, all created by hair's-breadth cuts of the saw.

Berries, blossoms, leaves, and vines are the subject of a quilt made by Elizabeth Sutherland Jones around 1860. Its simple color scheme of bright red and green on a white ground complements the rhythmical patterning of appliqued shapes. That this is the only quilt in the show is both surprising and disappointing--the exhibit might have been more representative of women's creative efforts and of the full range of folk art had a few more quilts and weavings been included (though a few of the paintings here were made by women).

The work of these rural artists brought to mind a passage from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, in which she advises, "Write as if you were dying. . . . What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?" The works shown here look as though they arose from a similar seriousness of purpose. Their creators, despite having limited time and training, nevertheless managed to describe with honesty their locales and the lives of those around them. They've conveyed something that snapshots never quite capture--an unwavering belief in the significance of particulars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marlin Ross--courtesy Illinois State Museum.

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