Louise Dahl-Wolfe and her husband were close friends of Janet Chase and Fred Hauck – Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School. The two couples had residences and studios in New York, and had country homes next door to one another in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Louise Dahl-Wolfe had discovered William Edmondson while traveling in Tennessee in 1936-1937 and bought several examples of his work for herself and for close friends. The angel was a gift from Dahl-Wolfe following that first trip to Tennessee.
This work is one of several angels carved by William Edmondson, and is individualized by variations of details, expression, and nuanced gesture, all testaments to the artist's deep spirituality and his insightful observation of the world around him. The serene, expressive figure wears a cape—not to replace wings but rather as an enhancing, flowing yet audacious counterpoint to the triangular geometries of the large bowtie-shaped wings that rest on the back of the cape. The prominent mantle accentuates the angel's significance and lends a quiet dignity to the figure. Negative space between the cape and body created by the dramatic cut-out of the interior cape area contours are in bold contrast to the solid angularity of the wings that frame the sculpture. Arms bent at the elbows and graceful hand placement almost touching just above the waist evoke serenity and feminine repose that resonate with Renaissance portraits. Characteristic Edmondson stylistic trademarks are the alternation of texture in hair, cape, and wings and the smoothness of the face, arms, and dress. In addition to abstraction achieved from pared-down details Edmondson favors a blocky, frontal style and deliberate freedom of scale; heads are large with full hairdos relative to bodies.
The angel is almost identical to—or may in fact be—the figure illustrated in Edmond Fuller's Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press in association with the Newark Museum, 1973, Fig. 17, in which the owner is listed as unknown).
Edmondson was the first African American self-taught artist given a one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. A New Yorker reviewer acknowledged the "surprising amount of weight and power" of the work but went on to write, "The figures are not decorative enough to be attractive to many, nor have they really enough emotional or intellectual content to be of lasting interest, and it is likely that after the show closes, on December 1st they and Mr. Edmondson will soon be forgotten." More than seventy years later, that reviewer was proved wrong. The museum establishment has recognized Edmondson as one of the most important self-taught artists of the twentieth century.
Edmondson carved both three-dimensionally and in relief. Choosing subjects, he looked to religion, history, his local community, real and fanciful animals, and heroes of popular culture. He carved lawyers, preachers, teachers, nurses, a mermaid, Jesus, Adam and Eve, and angels. Among the animals are doves, rams, squirrels, an eagle, and a terrapin. Some of the figures are generalized; others, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jack Johnson, and neighbors Miss Louisa, Bess, and Joe are specific. Edmondson also carved gravestones, an architectural work known as Noah's Ark, and numerous birdbaths.
The artist was born to Orange and Jane Brown Edmondson, former slaves, on a plantation in the Hillsboro Road section of Davidson County, Tennessee. He worked from childhood as a field hand, and, until 1907, when his leg was injured, he was a railroad worker for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. For the next twenty-five years he was employed by the Women's Hospital (known also as McGannon Hall and, later, Baptist Hospital), beginning as a janitor in charge of the furnace. He then worked as a porter and assistant stonemason for a local contractor in Nashville until 1931. Retired from that job, he spent much time in his garden, near Vanderbilt University, tending to his vegetables and fruit trees. Edmondson began to carve in 1934. He claimed to have been inspired by a series of visions he experienced in which God ordered him to carve. Between 1939 and 1941, Edmondson worked for the Works Progress Administration, which had a no-racial-discrimination clause. He carved until 1948, and died in 1951 after a long illness. The Nashville Banner carried his obituary, as did the New York Times and Art Digest.
Edmondson's property was filled with hundreds of his carved tombstones, figurative sculptures, and garden ornaments. He used an old hammer and a railroad spike to chisel mostly limestone blocks from demolished buildings and curbstones. His carvings range in size from20-inch critters to a birdbath 32-inch birdbath.
Sydney Hirsch, a professor on the art faculty of George Peabody College for Teachers, discovered Edmondson's art in 1935 as he walked through the neighborhood. Hirsch took his fashion photographer friend, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and others to see the artist. Dahl-Wolfe visited Edmondson several times beginning in 1937 but was unable to publish photographs of Edmondson's work in the William Randolph Hearst-owned Harper's Bazaar, where she worked, because Hearst forbade "negros" in his publications. Dahl-Wolfe directed the photographs instead to Alfred H. Barr, the visionary director of the Museum of Modern Art. Impressed, Barr arranged the exhibition for the museum. (Dahl-Wolfe purchased this Angel from the artist in 1937 as a gift to her friends and neighbors Janet Chase and Fred Hauck, grandparents of the present owner.)
Edmondson received recognition during his lifetime. Besides Dahl-Wolfe, the photographers Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga were interested in him, and photographed the artist and his carvings. Following the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Edmondson was represented in "Three Centuries of Art in the United States" (1938) at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, in Paris. In 1948, Charles Johnson, the first black president of Fisk University, chaired a symposium that was accompanied by the exhibition "Stone Carvings by William Edmondson." Members of Edmondson's community, including those from the Primitive Baptist Church, where he was a member, were in attendance. In 2000 a major exhibition and catalog was organized by the Cheekwood Museum of Art, in Nashville. The exhibition traveled to many venues, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
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Bird, Paul. "The Fortnight in New York." Art Digest (Nov. 1, 1937): 18. [vol. 13, February 1, 1939, pp. 18–19].
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Fuller, Edmund L. Visions in Stone: The Art of William Edmondson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.
"Inspired Self-Taught Artist, William Edmondson Dies." [Nashville] Tennessean (February 9, 1951), pp. 1, 6.
Lindsey, Jack. Miracles: The Sculptures of William Edmondson. Philadelphia: Janet Fleisher Gallery, 1994.
______________. "William Edmondson." Folk Art 20, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 43–47.
Lowe, Harry, Carl Zibart, and Walter Sharp. Will Edmondson's Mirkels. Nashville: Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood, 1964.
"Mirkels." Time. (November 1, 1937).
The New Yorker (November 6, 1937).
"Sculpture in the Modern Carving Tradition by a Tombstone Carver." The Art News (October 23, 1937).
Storr, Robert. "William Edmondson." In Elsa Longhauser and Harald Szeemann. Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle Books in association with Museum of American Folk Art, 1998, 62–67.
Thompson, John. "Negro Stone Cutter Here Says Gift From Lord; Work Praised." [Nashville] Tennessean (February 9, 1941), p. 11A.
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