Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Todd's General Store

By: Kajsa Sabatke, Interpretive Projects Coordinator
You can see this painting, Village Post Office, across the street from The Farmers’ Museum at the Fenimore Art Museum. The scene, set in a general store, shows many of the ways that stores served their communities. Store keepers stocked goods for people to buy, created credit accounts for local customers, provided post office services, and offered a place for people to meet and catch up on the latest news. In the spring, the store was stocked with seeds, tools, and supplies for planting and other springtime tasks. Genre paintings like this one depict scenes of everyday life and are valuable to us not only as art, but also as historical resources. Louis C. Jones, who served as director of NYSHA and The Farmers’ Museum from 1947-1972, said:
All social history is weak when it comes to the habits, work, dress, attitudes, play, and religious life of the lower classes in any society, and this is very true of Americans. People who work with their hands keep few diaries, write few letters, and until recently have seldom been a subject of concern to the scholar. The genre painter captures such people as would a modern photographer.*
You can see Jones, along with George Campbell and Janet MacFarlane, playing checkers in Todd’s General Store.
Today Todd’s is a place where you can buy reproductions of historic items, including some made at the museum, and see one of the back rooms set up with original objects that represent a sampling of the goods available in 1845. If you want to learn more about buying and credit in the 1840s, join us for Getting Ready for Spring on April 4. And to discover more about the art treasures at the Fenimore Art Museum, check out Hidden Treasures. Top: The Village Post Office, 1873. Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903). Fenimore Art Museum, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0393.1955 Bottom: George Campbell, Louis Jones, and Janet MacFarlane in Todd’s General Store about 1945. *Louis C. Jones, “Genre in American Folk Art,” in Three Eyes on the Past, 167. “Genre in American Folk Art” is reprinted with permission from John C. Milley, ed., Papers on American Art (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Friends of Independence National Historic Park, 1976.)

1 comment:

Paul D'Ambrosio said...

Great post, Kajsa. I have fond memories of Lou Jones lecturing about genre paintings when I was in his folk art class back in the early 1980s. He was a great mentor and an important proponent of recoginzing folk art as part of the national record and a great way to learn history. Allow me to clarify a couple of points as I understand them. Lou's quote about genre paintings implies that they are as realistic as modern day photographs might be. Scolarship in this area since the pubilication of "Three Eyes on the Past" has pointed out that these paintings, among 19th-century trained artists at least, were constructed from a variety of sources and meant to convey values more than the real circumstances of most people. The values, of course, most often were those of the person who paid for the painting to be done. Most of these patrons were wealthy, urban businessmen. The genre paintings sometimes reflected their memories of a rural childhood, but just as often reflect a popular conception of rural life akin to the TV shows of the 1970s (I'm thinking of "Hee-Haw" and "Mayberry RFD"). There is a subtle parodying of rural "types" in these works that appealled to urban audiences.

We should also make a distinction between academic and folk genre. Unlike the trained artist, the folk artist was painting for a rural audience. His patrons knew his subject as well or better than he or she did, and sought accuracy in the details while foregoing the realism that the folk artist was often unable to depict. This makes folk genre paintings (like our Van Bergen Overmantle) very valuable as historical documents of a particular time and place, something that is less true of the academic counterparts like the Thomas Waterman Wood "Village Post Office." The academic works are no less valuable as documents, but they tell us more about how an increasing number of Americans viewed their rural past and their rural fellow citizens as the country became more indutrialized and urban.

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