American. Folk. Art. Three seemingly simple words, each of which carries bottomless depths of meaning. But, when they are combined, the word American emerges as the most important of the three, because it defines and clarifies the other two. Other countries have strong folk art traditions; in fact, all of the traditions represented in the Esmerian Collection had their roots in Europe and were originally brought to the United States by early immigrants. But something important and powerful happened as those traditions were practiced and evolved in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. Like the men, women and children who created them, they were transformed; they became American, distinctly different from their original sources because of the country and society in which they were made.

The objects in the Esmerian Collection reflect and embody American lives and values, both those of their creators and of the men and women who commissioned, acquired, or were given them, and who used, displayed, and took pleasure in them. Most were fashioned in the formative years of the American experiment, between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the defining events in the early history of this country. They were made by and for Americans, citizens of a young and revolutionary democratic republic, with constitutionally guaranteed liberties and wide-open opportunities no other people had previously enjoyed – freedom of speech and the press, freedom of worship and assembly, freedom from state oppression and intrusion, and the unquestioned freedom to pursue individual happiness as one saw fit. They present pictures of their time and offer windows into life in preindustrial America, an era no less complex but more self-reliant than our own, when most household goods were not mass produced, but made one at a time, each the unique product of a single pair of human hands. They were painted, drawn, printed, molded, carved, forged, snipped, sewn, and embroidered by a wide variety of everyday Americans – itinerant painters and decorators, schoolgirls, farmers, housewives, schoolmasters, whale men, Shaker believers, chair and cabinet makers, potters, smithies, and ship and figure carvers. Some of their makers were professional craftsmen who were paid for their work, while others were skilled amateurs who created pieces of use and beauty to satisfy their own needs or give to family members and beloved friends. We know some of the artists’ names, but many will probably always remain unknown. What they all shared was a desire for expression, which pushed them to take their chosen medium beyond predicable results, to create something unusual and unique. A few, like the unknown carver of a small walnut George Washington figure and the Shaker craftsmen who carved and bent wood into small and exquisite lidded oval boxes, did this by subtraction, by paring everything unnecessary away from their forms until only the most elegant and telling essences remained. But most accomplished their goals by addition, by intensifying and heightening common objects – from portraits, landscapes, birth certificates, baptismal records, and tune books to fireboard, furniture, pottery, wood carving, and needlework – with exuberant and unexpected decorative flourishes and details.

Whatever the method, the main unifying thread that weaves through the Esmerian Collection is refinement. Other collections have been larger, broader, or deeper, but none have been as sophisticated, as discriminating, or as intensely focused. Ralph Esmerian was arguably folk art’s ultimate connoisseur, its greatest curator. He brought his own highly disciplined and discerning sensibility ot the study of folk art and chose objects for his own collection with immense care. Every work he selected is the most highly refined of its kind, with qualities that set it apart from other examples of its type. In one piece, that refinement might be manifest in the precision of its workmanship, the flamboyance of its decoration, the intensity of its colors, or the grace of its lines; in another, in the subtlety of its form, the power of its expression, the acuity of its maker’s observation, or the inventive flight of her fancy. Whatever the distinguishing characteristics that made an object special, that elevated it above others competing for his attention, Ralph Esmerian saw, with more clarity and acumen than any other collector of American folk art before him. He understood the traditions of American folk art deeply, and he profoundly respected the skills and sensibilities of finest practitioners of those traditions, whose works he passionately sought.

Lot 691
Rare Carved Pine Pheasant Hen Weathervane
Probably Connecticut, circa 1875
Pine with traces of paint
Estimate: 200,000 - 300,000 UD

Mr. Esmerian found particular delight in the works of Pennsylvania-German artisans, which are among the most colorfully and densely ornamented in all American folk art. The first piece of American folk art he bought for himself was a small redware dish made from iron-rich Pennsylvania clay. He went on to collect dozens of masterpieces of sgrafitto-decorated Pennsylvania-German redware, richly illuminated secular fraktur, and fancifully painted furniture from the state, as well as remarkable watercolor paintings of the region’s people and places and bold wood carvings and other decorative arts created by the descendants of original German settlers. But his abiding curiosity and relentless quest for excellence led him much farther afield, to the irresistible earthenware animal figures of Virginia’s Bell family and Ohio’s Anna Pottery, complex pictorial needlework by schoolgirls in New England academies, visionary gift drawings and elegant fingered boxes from the Shaker villages of the Northeast, carefully witnessed portraits and landscapes by Northern limners and decorators, and finely wrought whalebone canes, pie crimpers, boxes, and corset busks by Yankee scrimshanders. He also ultimately expanded his chronological reach to encompass such later masterpieces as a sublimely graceful Connecticut weathervane depicting a hen pheasant with an impossibly long, flowing tail; unique hand-carved animal weathervane patterns by Boston’s Henry Leach, from which mold were taken to manufacture multiple metal copies; a charming pre-World War I jumping carousel rabbit from Philadelphia’s Dentzel company; a jolly but poignant Santa Claus that retired master figure carver Samuel Robb lovingly crafted for his daughter in 1925; and powerfully minimalist World War II-era “memory” paintings by elderly Alabama ex-slave Bill Traylor.

In the preface to his study Democracy in America, written after touring the United States in the early 1830s, the young French aristocrat and politician Alexis de Tocqueville explained the purpose of his trip: “I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.” Ralph Esmerian’s purpose in collecting American folk art was the same; he himself described his collecting activities as “my American journey,” a search for surviving artifacts of “a great culture.” American folk art provided him with the image of democracy itself that de Tocqueville sought, and, in the supremely refined examples he discovered and preserved, we can look to measure this country’s progress and find enduring hope for its future.

-Robert Shaw
Shelburne, Vermont