As regular readers of this blog know, my aesthetic tastes are all over the map. I’m easily seduced—the gentle New England charms of Hamilton House
, A Marin watercolor, a Holbein portrait, the modern wonders of Fortune Rock
, a Moroccan garden, a Franz Kline, a Murano candlestick—all call to me as surely as a siren song lures a sailor
No matter how diverse or worldly my taste has become, there is a little corner of my heart that forever belongs to the world I knew and loved best growing up—the austere and optimistic elegance of Federal New England.
The watercolor above, The Hurlburt Family Mourning Piece, was painted in Connecticut in 1808 by Sarah Hurlburt, using techniques that she doubtless learned in a young ladies seminary. I love the composition, with the strong shapes of the mourners in their hats and bonnets flanking the elegant monuments of departed relatives. The palette of fresh green and black emphasizes the details—this is the style of early New England as I loved it.
The New England sensibility evoked by this painting aside, it is even more personal to me, for it hung in my childhood bedroom. Our parents encouraged my sister and me to choose paintings from their collection for our rooms. My sister, as befitted a horse-mad adolescent girl, chose an early 20th century horse portrait, and two sporting prints that also featured horses. These co-existed in her room with posters of Davy Jones and the Monkees, and a pen and ink drawing copied from Aubrey Beardsley, drawn by yours truly—but that’s a different story.
My first choice was a Gilbert Gaul of two boys on a dock, very Eakins in composition and palette, quite unlike the genre work for which Gaul is better known. That request was denied, as it was my parent’s favorite painting, and probably most valuable of their modest collection, and it remained where it was, at the far end of the living room. But my mother more than cheerfully parted with the mourning picture, which had hung in the dining room, and a charming Barbizon school painting by Troyon—the usual rural French scene with sheep and a church and sunset in the distance. Yes, I was an odd child, with odd tastes, I admit it. Not for me the usual posters of Cars and baseball players. These joined a Beaux Arts style architectural drawing I’d bought with my allowance at an estate sale, and which still hangs in my sitting room 45 years later.
As for the mourning picture, it is an object lesson in how pieces travel through the marketplace My parents bought it in 1964 from a noted Maine artist, Francis Hamabe. He had acquired it a woman in Bangor who used it as partial payment for one of Hamabe’s works. How she happened to have it is lost to history. When we owned it, it was frame dwith a modern white mat. I can still remember every detail of that picture—the crackled horse glue remaining on the border from a previous mat, with the ink signature of the artist visible underneath—and the texture and iridescence of the stippled dots of rich green gouache that delineated the rippling grass in the foreground
In 1973, I sold it the picture, if memory serves me correctly, for $1800.00 . It seemed a lot of money at the time. Gosh knows what I did with the money—a car? a trip to Europe? Dinners out? All of the above? Probably. You know what they say about a Dilettante and his money…
It was purchased by Calista Sterling, who was THE fashionable antiques dealer of our region in that era ( a position the Dilettante would later occupy in his turn in the 1990’s). She sold it in time to Joe and Hazel Marcus, retired textile manufacturers, collectors of Americana, who in their retirement ran a well known business called The Ebenezer Alden House. Then the trail runs cold for awhile, until 1987, when to my great surprise, I opened the new issue Architectural Digest (I still subscribed in those days), and in an article about American Folk Art, was the Hurlburt Memorial. it was in possession of David Schorsh, a dealer both famous and notorious.The simple white mat was gone, replaced by an appropriate and fancy black and gold eglomise mat. It was interesting to see it pictured there, and of course caused a pang of regret, for the $1800 dollars was long gone in support of youthful extravagance, and now the painting was worth far more. I closed the magazine, and didn’t think of the painting again, until for some reason it crossed my mind the other day.
I typed ‘Hurlburt Memorial’ into Google, and to my surprise, there it was, now in the collection of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, and considered perhaps the finest of its genre. Exhibited earlier this year in the exhibit, WOMEN ONLY: FOLK ART BY FEMALE HANDS,
the catalog notes tell the rest of the story:
Young women of the upper classes received art instruction at such schools as Sarah Pierce’s Female Academy in Litchfield, Conn. There, they learned to do watercolor landscapes in the fashionable pastoral style. This gentle view of nature was extended into another popular form of the early 19th century – the memorial painting. These employed various symbols of death and mourning, including the weeping willow and the obelisk, from Egyptian art. You can see more Egyptian influence in the 1808 memorial work by Sarah Hurlburt, with its four bonneted women lined up in nearly identical flat profiles.