Flashback: Collecting American Primitives

April 3rd, 2009

In this article, the author discusses the various encounters she has had while collecting primitive paintings, noting where she found the best bargains. It originally appeared in the October 1942 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

The start of a collection always seems surprising in retrospect. My collecting began because, over a sofa in our Connecticut farmhouse, there was a large space which clearly demanded an old picture. One day my husband told me that he’d seen a very cheap old painting that might be right — and added that he’d also seen a very expensive picture that we certainly wouldn’t consider. But he suggested that I take a look at the latter, and if after that I still liked the first, he was sure it would do.

Illustration I: Two Women: Eunice Pinney. Watercolor. c. 1815. Collection of the author.

Illustration I: Two Women: Eunice Pinney. Watercolor. c. 1815. Collection of the author.

The first picture turned out to be a typical pot-boiler of the eighties — a slap-dash, semi-primitive landscape of the type Carl Drepperd aptly terms a “quickie.”  The second picture was earlier — a large primitive farm scene, crisply done in bright watercolor, with meticulous forms wonderfully arranged through a strangely acute perspective. To be brief, it was a honey, from any point of view.

Never having seen anything like this painting, I asked all sorts of questions, thinking meanwhile that we must have it. The owner told me that he wanted $75.00 for it and that, frankly, the reason it had been hanging in his shop for the last fifteen years was that he believed he was overcharging for it (this was some ten years ago). But he liked it, and really wasn’t eager to sell it. I told him I’d think it over, returned the next week check in hand — to find that my picture had just been sold. The first item for my collection was never mine after all. Since then I have never delayed a moment when I saw an unusual picture and knew I intended to buy it.

Once I took the first train to Boston after receiving a letter from a dealer describing a recently acquired group of watercolors by Eunice Pinney, a watercolorist who worked in Windsor, Connecticut, about 1815. And here follows a story of a strange coincidence.

I had a week before written a collector asking for a photograph of her unique portrait of two New England women by Eunice Pinney, which had been reproduced some years ago on the cover of one of the antiques magazines. My letter had just been returned with the stamp of “address unknown.” Imagine my surprise when I found the original of that reproduction in the group of watercolors in Boston, Illustration I. I bought it and four others at a handsome price, and am glad no one beat me to it.

I might add here that my only real “mistakes” in collecting primitives were those I didn’t buy. Two in particular seemed expensive at the time — but one is now hanging in the Ludwell-Paradise House in Williamsburg, the other in the Chrysler Collection. Had I ever regretted buying them I could have sold them a dozen times over for their purchase price. Incidentally I have disposed of over a hundred of my primitives at cost, singly to dealers, in groups to department stores.

Illustration II: Darktown: Oil on glass. c. 1860. Collection of the author.

Illustration II: Darktown: Oil on glass. c. 1860. Collection of the author.

One amusing incident occurred in selling a group of thirty weeded paintings. The buyer had come to see them, hanging as an exhibit on one large wall, and had agreed to take the group. We each made a list; I packed and delivered them the following week. When I received the check and invoice I noted to my dismay that the price of one picture had been deducted as “not delivered” — a watercolor portrait of a little boy in blue straddling a yellow chair. Strangely enough this was the only one I had added to the lot with some misgivings. It was really good, and I don’t know to this day why I sent it off.

Not to get ahead of my story, I wrote an indignant letter to the buyer saying that I had myself packed and delivered all the pictures, and if that portrait was not there it must have been lost in the store. Imagine my embarrassment when, on my next trip to my New York apartment, I saw twenty-nine empty nails in the plaster, and my boy in blue hanging in the midst of them! My friends have always claimed that I never do anything I don’t want to, and now quote my “selling” the Blue Boy as proof. Certainly my subconscious did a job that day, and the little portrait is now the most permanent item of my permanent collection.

This reminds me of a time when my unconscious mind played me a bad instead of a good turn. I had just seen a group of really remarkably faked Ellsworth miniatures. Their author called them reproductions. The next week, at the New York antiques exposition, I saw what appeared to be a delightful Ellsworth portrait, of a little yellow-haired girl in a bright red and green dress, holding out a bouquet of flowers as she sat bolt upright on a red-plush Victorian chair. I asked the price of the miniature — $12.50 — an astonishingly low figure! The frame was new.

The dealer, perhaps sensing suspicion, assured me that I might look at the watercolor through her magnifying glass to assure myself of its authenticity. I asked her where she had bought the little picture, and after an appreciable pause she said, “from the estate of a Mr. John Smith in Albany.” I needed no more, and left the miniature. But after I got home I began to feel sure that Ellsworth was no counterfeit. Clever as the others had been, the total effect was of something not quite right. This one was. And why should a dealer tell me where she bought her things?

Illustration III: Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine: Oil on canvas. c. 1870. Collection of the author.

Illustration III: Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine: Oil on canvas. c. 1870. Collection of the author.

But my revised decision was too late, for the miniature was sold by the time my check arrived. I know it now as one of the most delightful Ellsworths ever found, and to make matters worse I’ve since been able to identify the subject as a Miss Nye of Lee, Massachusetts, and to trace its complete history. A miniature collector now owns it, and wouldn’t sell it for ten times what he paid for it. I know. I’ve asked.

To go back to where I interrupted myself with this sad tale. Disposing of primitives is an easy affair; it can be done with a minimum of trouble and in a practical and business-like way. Acquiring them is quite another matter.

It had occurred to me to start this story of collecting with the statement that almost all my pictures had been found on antiquing trips in typical rural antique shops. But it then struck me that the “typical” antique shop is much like the story of the negro waiter’s “average” tip. When asked by a patron the average tip he received he said, “a dollar, suh,” and when given the dollar exclaimed, “I sure thank you suh! You’re the fuse ever to hit the average!” Certainly, as I think of my primitive purchases, the extraordinary rather than the ordinary seems to be the rule.

One picture came from a wealthy Massachusetts woman whose antique shop is one of her hobbies. It is on an estate which also boasts kennels, greenhouses, extensive landscaped lawns, stables, and private racing track. Another came from a tiny Vermont shop, whose owner regarded my proffered check with real bewilderment. She had never seen one.

This same dealer kept her stock of miniature and rare old glass and china in a brand new GE refrigerator. In conversation she said, in a matter-of-fact way, that her husband was doing real well and would get her a fine icebox for Christmas, but she preferred to keep her butter and cream in the well as she always had.

In one of the Pint Street shops in Philadelphia, I was interested in a gory battle scene of the Civil War. Asked the price, the dealer said, “Three dollars,” and then, sensing my hesitation, hastily added, “but I’ll make it two because so many of them in the picture are dead.”

A much less eager merchant is one of the well-known New York dealers in Americana. My first meeting with him was when a few years ago I walked into his shop, looked around, and was struck with admiration for a wonderful primitive painting of a group of negro in a typical Carolina darkytown, Illustration II. The owner emerged, I asked the picture’s price. To my great surprise, being accustomed to the warm and Specific response of the New York picture dealer when asked the price of a picture, he murmured that he’d only had that painting a short while, hadn’t really thought yet about pricing it, pointed out that it was on glass and slightly cracked across the corner; and while I looked about at a few other pictures he tucked my Darkytown away in one of the racks!

Illustration IV: Ansicht von Bingen: Pennsylvania watercolor. c. 1850. Collection of the author.

Illustration IV: Ansicht von Bingen: Pennsylvania watercolor. c. 1850. Collection of the author.

I stopped in many times to see this picture, and finally bought it, not when I decided I could afford it, but when Mr. X felt that he would really like me to have it. The quixotic Mr. X told me, after I’d had this picture hanging over my living room mantel for some years, that he had acquired it from a negro junkman for a bottle of whiskey.

One picture was bought from a New Hampshire dealer who told me that years ago he used to go around the countryside offering so much, sight unseen “for whatever’s behind that, fireboard,” or “whatever’s in that closed of corner in your attic.” I admired the technique, and he offered me a similar opportunity. Describing an attractive-sounding primitive which he said he didn’t really care much for, he asked me to place a bid on it. The result of this gamble was one of my castoffs. I liked that picture no more than the dealer did.

Most of these rambling reminiscences seem to be concerned with my impressions of the dealers who sold me my pictures. I often wonder — and sometimes know — what they thought of me.

There was the time when, having followed another dealer’s directions to her sister’s “shop,” where she was sure we’d find the sort of pictures we were after, we crossed a small mountain, and followed a mile of cowpath to a tiny brown house. Wearily arriving, and being shown a few old chairs and some wooden-ware instead of pictures, we insisted that the old lady who had put out an antiques sign must have at least a few old watercolors. We had come so far, and such hopes had been raised. She stated that definitely and finally, she had no paintings on the premises. But if we wanted to see some old scrap-books that her grandmother’s aunt had kept from her school days, she’d find them for us, and then, if she might be excused, she’d have to get dinner. She thought us quite odd I’m sure when we gleefully carried off the two albums of nice watercolor “practice pieces” done by a talented young miss of the 1830′s.

Our greatest bargain was a large oil landscape of a winter Sunday in Norway, Maine, complete with village, church and churchgoers, and a sleigh drawn by the strangest pair of maroon horses, Illustration III. This picture, hanging in a tiny shop, was literally in shreds. The dealer’s response to our query as to price was, “Well, I figgered I’d better get fifty cents for that there frame, so if you want the picture, you can have it for that.”

She obviously thought us a bit crazy when we spent a half hour carefully packing this primitive so that the paint would not peel any worse. I must admit that until a good restorer got through with that picture we were in some doubts as to how to list it in our expense book for primitives. I favored “walnut frame $0.50″; my husband optimistically put it down as “Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine.” It is now one of our most admired pictures.

Another recent bargain — and here again what the dealer thought of our sanity would have made us blush — was a group of large watercolor scenes of North Litchfield, Maine, painted at various seasons by C. F. Dunn in 1856. One is subtitled Pleasant Valley from. Dunn’s Cornfield, another North Litchfield Village in November — 1856 — C. F. Dunn, Del.

This Charles Frederic Dunn, I recently learned from C. K. Bolton, was a well-known Bostonian, Harvard graduate and world traveler, who in 1841 married a Litchfield girl, and then became a farmer, poet and painter. The farmer-dealer who sold us the Dunn watercolors had found them, rolled in newspaper, in a chest of drawers he had bought at auction. He almost literally — I’m ashamed to relate — gave them to us. When asked their price he said, with a broad wink, “Wal, these things is wuth their weight in gold, but I guess I’d take ten dollars for them today cause times is hard, haw, haw.” When we handed him a ten dollar bill and almost ran off with the newspaper bundle, his look of amazement was something I won’t forget in a hurry.

One more bargain-story is of a wonderful primitive seascape of Montauk Point in about 1850, depicting sailing vessels, Montauk Light, and the lighthouse keeper with his family, cows, and an oxcart. This was sold us for seven dollars because of its huge hand made pine-cone frame which, the dealer assured us, was unique and well worth the price, with the picture thrown in. The pine-cone frame, incidentally, made fine kindling.

Of course, should any of these dealers read this, they would be more convinced than ever that we collectors are a funny lot. And perhaps they’re right. I recall the fact that on one expedition we spent two days in a dismal village waiting for an antiques dealer to return from a trip, open his shop, and allow us to buy a picture we had seen through the window as we passed. On another vacation we regretfully turned down a fine but too expensive Pennsylvania watercolor. After having driven ten miles on our way we stopped, conferred, retraced our steps, bought the picture, Illustration IV, and came home two days ahead of schedule to make up for this extravagance. But we’ve never regretted acquiring that picture, or, indeed, our collecting mania — and I doubt if we ever shall.

(Note: This article was written to answer the many letters Mrs. Lipman received after the publication of her recent book, American Primitive Painting, asking how and where she had collected her primitives. —Ed.)

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.


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