Editor's note: The Cahoon Museum of American Art provided source material to Resource Library for the following article and essay. The essay was previously included in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition In the Beginning: The Decorated Furniture of Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact Cahoon Museum of American Art through either this phone number or web address:
In the Beginning: The Decorated Furniture of Ralph and Martha Cahoon
July 27 - September 18, 2004
(above: Dome-top chest with portraits and garlands; decorated by Martha Cahoon; oil on wood; 1946; h 15 inches, w 34 inches, d 15 inches; private collection)
For some 25 years before Ralph and Martha Cahoon became famous for their whimsical primitive paintings, they had a successful business decorating furniture with traditional folk designs.
This first career -- quickly eclipsed by their second -- has been largely overlooked until now. But this summer, the Cahoon Museum of American Art presents the exhibition "In the Beginning: The Decorated Furniture of Ralph and Martha Cahoon," running from July 27 through September 18, 2004. (right: Victorian secretary with Swedish decorations ("Sheba and Solomon"); decorated by Ralph Cahoon; oil on wood; 1946; h 72 inches, w 35 inches, d 22 inches; private collection)
The show features more than 40 objects the Cahoons painted between 1930, when they met, to 1960, when their reputations as primitive artists really exploded. These pieces include secretaries, chests, tables, commodes and chairs as well as such accessories as trays, a firkin and a wastepaper basket decorated with a picture of George Washington. Drawn from private collections in Maine and Rhode Island, as well as on Cape Cod, the pieces demonstrate the Cahoons' command of the Swedish, Pennsylvania-German and early-American decorative styles.
The exhibition begins with a small selection of decorated furniture from the West Harwich shop of Martha's father, Axel Farham. That's where Martha apprenticed for 10 years, learning stenciling and the decorative art of Scandivanian rosemaling. After she and Ralph married in 1932, she taught him the trade and they started a business selling antiques and their painted furniture at their home in Osterville. In 1945, they moved to the large Colonial house in Cotuit that has -- for the past 20 years -- been the Cahoon Museum. It's exciting to think that much of the furniture in "In the Beginning" has temporarily returned to the very building where it was first decorated and displayed in the late '40s and 1950s.
Two highlights of the show are pieces that Ralph Cahoon decorated with elaborate designs based on Swedish wall hangings. In one case, the main panels on a Victorian walnut secretary illustrate the biblical story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the second, images on a 6-foot-long pine dowry chest exuberantly tell the tale of the Prodigal Son.
"In the Beginning" also shows how the Cahoons -- particularly Martha -- used motifs drawn from nature, including shells, birds, flowers, fruits and butterflies. Other pieces show their earliest endeavors at primitive painting. A tilt-top table boasts a colorful farm scene, while a commode bears an engaging scene of a sailor on the shore. We can easily see why, in the early '50s, Long Island collector and art dealer Joan Whitney Payson encouraged the Cahoons to try painting primitives that could be framed. Some of the Cahoons' earliest paintings are also on view, helping us to understand the transition even better. (right: "Sailor's Return" commode; decorated by Ralph Cahoon; oil on wood; c. 1950s; h 31 inches, w 30 inches, d 17 inches; collection of Susan Shea McPherson)
For comparison's sake, the show takes a brief look at pieces from the Provincetown and Orleans shops of Peter Hunt, whose decorated furniture also had a devoted clientele. He and Ralph Cahoon knew each other and were undoubtedly acquainted with each other's work.
"In the Beginning" has been guest-curated by Barnes Riznik of Osterville. He is a trustee of the Cahoon Museum, a former vice president of Old Sturbridge Village and the retired director of Grove Farm Museum on Kauai in Hawaii. He notes that "the exhibit gives an extra dimension to the Cahoons as artists and allows visitors to look at and appreciate objects that have not been seen before by many other people."
In the Beginning: The Decorated Furniture of Ralph and Martha Cahoon
by Barnes Riznik
For some 25 years before Cape Cod artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon became recognized nationally for their highly individual primitive paintings, they had a successful business restoring and decorating American antique furniture.
"In the Beginning," an exhibition of Cahoon furniture decorated between 1930 and 1960, includes chests, commodes, tables, chairs and trays. These objects provided surfaces on which the Cahoons painted a variety of Swedish peasant, Pennsylvania-German and early American designs. Eventually, they also went beyond such derivative ornamentation and painted scenes of their own invention, including Cape Cod-inspired designs ranging from beach scenes with shorebirds and shells to fanciful, often humorous compositions with mermaids and sailors.
Most pieces on exhibit come from private collections. Some owners have preserved the furniture as part of their memories of a unique Cape Cod lifestyle in the years after the Depression and World War II, when economic prosperity returned and antique collecting became even more popular. In 1936, Nancy McClelland, a historian of the decorative arts, commented that painted furniture does for a room what flowers do -- and most owners of Cahoon furniture would probably agree.
Martha Cahoon's father, furniture decorator Axel Farham (1876-1946), played the key role in Martha's training. He was born in Sweden and learned decorative painting as part of the revival of rosemaling, or rustic painting, and the peasant arts and crafts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Painting was his livelihood after he emigrated to Boston and then moved to the Cape, where he opened his own furniture restoration and decoration shop, first in Harwich Center and then, in 1922, in West Harwich. Although there had been small-scale cabinetmaking shops on the Cape in the 19th century, Farham's specialized decorating shop was probably the first of its kind on the Cape.
The exhibition features several samples of his decorative furniture designs, a still life of flowers, a two-panel landscape, and a one-drawer chest of Pennsylvania-German design -- giving us an idea of the range of items he offered. Eventually, Parham also began selling antique china and glass and painted tinware. According to his cashbook, in 1933-34 he had 381 sales of antique and decorated furniture and sold nearly 300 pieces of china and glass. Eighty-nine transactions involved trays and other items of tinware.
Martha (1905-1999) became her father's apprentice after she graduated from Brooks Academy in 1922. Her work was a blend of decorative styles, such as the rosemaling she used on a dome-top chest and the stenciling on a side chair. Also on exhibit is a stenciled settee decorated by Martha's younger brother, Eric, who carried on their father's shop.
Martha met Chatham native Ralph Cahoon (1910-1982) in 1930, and they were married in 1932. Ralph briefly went to work in the Harwich shop, and Martha taught him how to paint and stencil furniture. They opened their own antiques shop in Osterville and decorated furniture -- and even parts of their house. The exhibit shows four kitchen cabinet doors Ralph painted in 1937 with folk motifs. Their son, Franz, was born in 1935 and kept them both busy.
By 1941, the Cahoon's shop showed sales of $3,433, with expenses of $1,376 spent replenishing the stock of antiques and buying paint and brushes. That year the Cahoons sold antique trays, chests, chairs, mirrors, buckets, a cupboard, a child's rocker, a trestle table, a settee and duck decoys. Their decorating work in 1941 included "penna-dutch," a "garland of peasant roses," hearts, doves and shells. Their sales of antiques amounted to $1,832, while their income from decorative work was the slightly lower figure of $1,601. Martha's dome-top chest with floral decoration and two historical figures is an example of the type of work they were doing at the time.
In 1945, the Cahoons moved to a larger house for additional studio and gallery space. They restored a two-story 18th-century building in Cotuit-Santuit and preserved original architectural material, including the stenciled entry hall from the building's tavern days. They had their studio in one of the front rooms on the first floor, had bedrooms on the second floor and used the other rooms as galleries to display their antiques and decorated furniture.
It was during this time that Ralph decorated a number of large case pieces, some of them in familiar Pennsylvania-German designs, but others based on printed sources of rural Swedish wall paintings and fabric hangings portraying Bible stories. Some of Ralph's decorations used figures and large, floating flowers from paintings by early 19th-century Swedish artists from the Dalarma region. The exhibit shows several of these case pieces as well as several corresponding photos from an album assembled by Ralph. A dower chest decorated by Ralph celebrates "The Prodigal Son" -- "Den Forlorade Sonen" -- from Luke 15:11-16. Ralph based his work upon a wall hanging by Swedish artist Johannes Nilsson.
Martha continued to recall rosemaling traditions in her floral decorations on chairs and mirror frames, but she also introduced other natural motifs. In the exhibition, her shell designs enhance a secretary and two-drawer chest. A circular coffee or cocktail table features beach motifs, including shorebirds. Ralph became more fanciful. He introduced sailors and playful mermaids surrounded by ocean and bays about the same time his easel paintings of these subjects began to be shown in several galleries off-Cape. Vignettes on a round table tell the tale of a ship's officer rescued by mermaids while a scene of diving mermaids and sailors enlivens a tray. These new Cahoon images reflected the fun of living on Cape Cod.
In October 1949, on the way home from a trip to Niagra Falls with Franz, the Cahoons stopped off at the newly opened Old Sturbridge Village, with its collection of country arts. Possibly, the folk paintings they saw there inspired them to each try painting a primitive picture that could be framed. In February 1950, Martha wrote in her journal: "I started my primitive painting. Ralph is doing one too." She later added the note: "These were our first pictures." The following year, Martha visited Colonial Williamsburg, where she likely saw Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's collection of early American folk art. "Enjoyed collection of primitive paintings as much as anything," she said in her journal.
Her first primitive painting, "Family and Homestead," is exhibited with a few examples of the Cahoons' decorated furniture inspired by early American folk art. There's a tilt-top table painted with a farm scene by Martha and a painted commode that Ralph decorated with a copy of early 19th-century artist Edward Hicks' scene of "William Penn's Treaty With the Indians" (which was based on Benjamin West's heroic painting). A winter scene Martha painted on a tray recalls Currier & Ives prints.
At the same time the Cahoons were introducing scenes from American painting in their furniture decorations, they continued to use some of their older designs, including cut-out patterns. Ralph and Franz stenciled some of the walls and floors of the Cotuit rooms as background for their antiques. And in the exhibit one sees a painted and stenciled four-drawer chest that shows the lustrous qualities of different colors and shading in the Cahoons' use of metallic powders. A painted low table shows the delicacy of their grape stencil, and a restored Hitchcock-type fancy chair introduces a shell motif over a more traditional 19th-century design. As late as 1970, they painted and decorated a Boston rocker in rosemaling style as a housewarming gift for Franz and his wife, Ruth.
Some people who acquired the Cahoons' decorated furniture 50 years ago also collected objects painted by Peter Hunt (1896-1967) and his students. Hunt's designs, especially his "peasant decorations" on simple, recycled furniture, were sold in his shops in Provincetown and Orleans and also in Boston and New York City. The Cahoons knew Hunt and were undoubtedly acquainted with his work. Several pieces decorated by Hunt and Nancy Whorf, who was one of his students, are on view in the show.
Barnes Riznik is guest curator for the exhibition
Wall text from the exhibition:
Axel Farham and the Rosemaling Tradition
This room has a small selection of decorated furniture from the West Harwich shop of Martha's father, Axel Farham. He was born in Sweden and learned decorative painting as part of the revival of rosemaling, or rustic painting, and peasant arts and crafts from the 18th and 19th centuries. When he and his family visited relatives in Boston in 1902, they didn't intend to emigrate from their native Sweden. But Axel contracted typhoid fever, and the funds intended for their return voyage were used up on medical expenses. So Axel went to work as a decorator in Boston, working renovating old homes for Allen and Hall, among other jobs. Even after the Farham family moved to Harwich in 1915, Axel commuted to Boston for several years before opening his own shop, first in Harwich Center, then in West Harwich. He built up such a reputation that he didn't even have to advertise. Clients included Mrs. Felix A. DuPont and the well-known Cape novelist Joseph C. Lincoln.
After graduation from Brooks Academy, Martha apprenticed to her father for 10 years in the Harwich shop, scraping and sanding furniture and learning stenciling and rosemaling. After Martha and Ralph were married in 1932, she taught him the trade. Although there had been small-scale cabinetmaking shops on the Cape in the 19th century, Axel Farham's specialized decorating shop was probably the first of its kind on the Cape.
Ralph and Martha Cahoon's Osterville Shop
After they married, Ralph and Martha bought a small house in Osterville (the present site of C.H. Newton Builders at 919 Main St.) and started their own business selling antiques and decorated furniture. Their son, Franz, was born in 1935 and kept them both busy, especially Martha. By 1941, the Cahoons showed sales of $3,433, with annual expenses of $1,376 spent replenishing their stock of antiques and buying paint and brushes. That year they sold antique trays, chests, chairs, mirrors, buckets, a cupboard, a child's rocker, a trestle table, a settee and duck decoys. Their decorating work included "penna-dutch" and a "garland of peasant roses." Sales of their painted furniture and stock of antiques were almost equally divided.
Recalling a Variety of Design Traditions: The Cotuit Shop
In 1945, the Cahoons bought a larger house in Santuit, a subsection of the village of Cotuit. They lovingly restored the two-story 1775 Georgian Colonial that is, today, the Cahoon Museum. They preserved historical architectural material, including the stencils that had adorned the central stairwell since the building's tavern days in the 1820s. The Cahoons had their studio in one of the front rooms on the first floor. The bedrooms were on the second floor. Other rooms served as galleries for antiques and their decorated furniture.
Pennsylvania-German designs characterized by the use of stylized flowers, fruits, birds and animals.
Nature and Fantasy on Cape Cod
In the 1950s, the Cahoons' decorative designs became more reflective of Cape Cod. Martha's journals record their use of seashell motifs on furnishings and home accessories, and some of her earliest paintings are beach scenes with such shorebirds as sandpipers and yellowlegs near the water's edge. Martha was fond of shelling and collected different specimens on the Cape and, later, in Florida. Her love of nature is also evident in the way her talents at rosemaling evolved into more realistic-looking roses, pansies, strawberries, birds and butterflies, painted on chests, children's chairs and mirror frames. Franz Cahoon recalls that his mother painted "thousands" of garlands over the years -- or so it must have seemed. Meanwhile, Ralph began to decorate tables, chests, commodes and trays with harbor scenes, young sailors and playful mermaids.
American Primitive Art and Stenciling
The Cahoons painted primitive scenes on furniture as early as 1939, and it was certainly common for them to do so by the mid-1940s. Sometimes they drew their inspiration from 19th-century folk art. Sometimes they seem to have come up with scenes of their own invention. In October 1949, on the way home from a trip to Niagra Falls with Franz, the Cahoons stopped off at the newly opened Old Sturbridge Village, with its collection of early New England country arts. Possibly, the folk paintings they saw there inspired them to each try painting a primitive picture that could be framed. In February 1950, Martha wrote in her journal:
"I started my primitive painting. Ralph is doing one too." She later added the note: "These were our first pictures." The following year, Martha visited Colonial Williamsburg, where she likely saw Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's collection of early American folk art. "Enjoyed collection of primitive paintings as much as anything," she said in her journal. Looking at the delightful primitive scenes that the Cahoons painted on furniture, we can easily see why, in the early '50s, Long Island art dealer Joan Whitney Payson encouraged the couple to do more paintings that could be framed and hung on the wall. She first showed their paintings at her new Country Art Gallery in 1953 and probably gave them their first two-person show in 1954.
At the same time, the Cahoons continued to stencil with their cutout
patterns. Ralph and Franz even stenciled some of the walls and floors of
the rooms as background for their displays of antiques and decorated furniture.
Other Cape Cod Furniture Painters: Peter Hunt's School
Some people who acquired the Cahoons' decorated furniture 50 years ago also collected objects painted by Peter Hunt (1896-1967) and his students. Hunt and Ralph Cahoon knew each other and were undoubtedly acquainted with each other's work. Whereas Ralph's and Martha's early painted furniture pieces are clearly replications of Swedish and Pennsylvania-German folk designs or are drawn from early American primitive art, Hunt's so-called "peasant decorations" were cheerful, simple designs of his own invention. Increasingly, the Cahoons also relied more and more upon their own fertile imaginations.
Hunt's simple, recycled furniture pieces were sold at his shops in Provincetown and Orleans and also in Boston and New York City. For comparison's sake, this gallery showcases a number of pieces by him and one of his most exceptional students, Nancy Whorf.
Whorf continued to decorate furniture into the 1980s, but is now acclaimed for her exuberant oil paintings.
Label text from the exhibition: