Wednesday, September 5, 2012

American Primitive Wood Graining



"The Printseller's Window'" Walter Goodman 1883

Nineteenth Century Tall Grass Magicians (so called because they'd camp in the tall grass on the outskirts of town) with names like Willard the Wizard were basically drifters plying sleight of hand for a quick buck. They'd blow into small American towns and perform sideshows and magic acts until the townspeople got bored and then they'd move on, disappearing like ghosts.


All sorts of artisans, from painters and photographers to woodworkers and doctors (for wasn't medicine more of an "Art" than a "Science" back then?) were doing much the same. Folk Artists would cobble together a living by painting portraits, shop signs, murals, wood-graining - anything they could get. 

Even Walter Goodman, whose trompe l'oeil masterpiece "The Printseller's Window" is pictured above, spent rootless years "undertaking interior painting, illuminating ceilings, fabricating life-size advertising 'Indians' for merchants, painting theatrical scenery and making up stage actors."


James Millard, photographer and artist, outside his studio in Wigan, circa 1895. [source]

Some stayed in Europe and managed to open stores. The photo (above) of Millard - proud as Punch and open for business in swanky new digs - as a "Painter in all it's Branches" and Photographer of "Machinery, Buildings & Animals", illustrates this perfectly. Plenty of others headed to America and took to the roads in droves, traveling from town to town in an endless search for work. Their mostly anonymous efforts kept the art of decorative painting alive, and created a new style known as American Primitive.


Laurel Farm outside of Pawling, New York
I was thrilled to come across some of their original handiwork in a recent stay at beautiful Laurel Farm outside Pawling, New York. The main dining room, with it's large open fireplace and brick oven, was a focal point of the old farmhouse and as such would typically receive the most elaborate decoration. In this case, an unknown painter covered all wooden surfaces in a primitive faux oak grain, painted in one pass.


Original wood-graining in the dining room. The bottle of Pilsner was a recent addition by me.
The original farmhouse dates from 1815, but has been expanded and renovated since then. Fortunately, the current owners are keenly aware of it's history and chose to preserve as many of the original features as possible, including the wonderful wood-graining on display here.






According to 'Vignettes of Patterson Past' (The Patterson Historical Society, 2007), the farmhouse was used at one point as a camp for girls.

"The camp was to be named Camp Genevieve Brady in honor of its donor. It would provide a taste of farm life for city girls. An eight room house and lakefront cabin stand on the property and there are plans to erect a recreation hall and seven units to accommodate 200 girls."

The owners used to bring the girl's luggage up from the train station for their two week stay, and give them hayrides with his tractor. 

"Residents remember scout sunrise ceremonies held as the sun rose above the eastern hills and red buses filled with campers going up and down the road into the late 1980s."



For a more detailed account of the tools and techniques of wood graining, as well as a how-to video on faux oak, check out this link to recent post on this blog.


11 comments:

  1. What a find! Your posts are always well thought out and give information I did not know about. This is a treasure Alan!

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    1. Thanks, Theresa. I always appreciate your comments.

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  2. We had our itinerant painters in the West, too. But that tough life must have been extra tough here -- long, long distances between towns, and often very dry land in between. I was on a road trip a year ago, and passing through eastern Washington was quite amazed to find a series of murals in the smallest of towns, in the middle of the boonies, nothing but dry, dry land and lots of lava rock for miles and miles. The locals told me about numerous murals in various houses, but I only saw the ones in the local bar/restaurant. I've daydreamed about documenting these murals somehow, perhaps in a book.

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    1. The entry log for immigrants at the Ellis Island Museum has short entries with Anglicized names and tantalizing notes showing trades and destinations. I lost myself imagining whatever happened to some of them, and whether they made it all the way to Oregon or whatever. It's a testament to the human will to survive and explore.

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  3. Hi, Alan - There's great charm to the primitive graining; looking at the larger grain, it almost looks as though the artist used his fingers! Maybe he did.

    I've looked at a lot of trompe l'oeil books and never seen Goodman's "The Printseller's Window." WOW!

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    1. The painting was purchased by Rochester Museum, New York. I'd love to go see it, but it's a six hour drive from New York City. I forget how big New York is! The Museum released a color catalog of the purchase with decent reproductions and a great text.

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  4. I encounter a lot of that more "naive" style of graining in San Francisco. This place went from being a camp on the beach to a major city in the space of a few years. so the graining was pretty slap-dash, as the painters moved from house to house as quickly as possible. I get a lot of people asking for that to be matched. even if I could do better, the look of the original is effective and pretty charming.

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    1. One thing I've always loved about the States is how young it is. There are some great black and white photos of Manhattan with cars driving along the beach on the East River! It was really a small town in some ways.

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  5. Lovely little lecture on this phenomena; traveling trades and the remaining evidence of their existence. I'm from Europe where we're spoiled with the remains of them, although i realize in a slightly different style and look perhaps. That being said, it is really nice to see that people are aware of their importance to the cultural history of a certain region. How plain, naive or down-to-earth they sometimes might appear to others, they tell the story of days gone by! Thanks for posting,
    Debora

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