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His and Hers: Folk Portraits of Husbands and Wives


As numerous sweethearts prepare for a June wedding, the Cahoon Museum of American Art is highlighting couples who tied the knot before there were photographers around to record the happy event -- or any other. Running through June 15, 2002 the special exhibition His and Hers: Folk Portraits of Husbands and Wives will feature more than two dozen pairs of American portraits painted from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. In those years, the untrained itinerant artist was often the one who preserved a family's faces for posterity.

George and Martha Washington are the most famous couple on view. They were painted by well-known folk artist William Matthew Prior, who found ready buyers for the many copies of Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait of Washington he produced in the 1860s. Some lesser known subjects also have colorful histories. Captain Peter Storms of Bourne was a blockade runner who played an important role in Venezuela's fight for independence from Spain. He became friends with General Simon Bolivar and was considered a hero. Captain David Leonard was a commander with Plymouth County Regiment during the Revolution. Ephraim Taylor served as deputy, town clerk and selectman for the town of Chatham. George Myrick operated a warehouse on the wharves on Nantucket. Mary Nurse Brewer was descended from a Salem "witch" family. (left: Frederick Mayhew, Captain Benjamin Dexter and Betsey Hillman Dexter (details), c. 1827, oil on canvas, Collection of Martha's Vineyard Historical Society)

Since many itinerant painters didn't sign their work, many of the portraits in the His and Hers exhibition are by unknown talents. However, visitors can also see examples of works by - or attributed to - such notable folk portraitists as Prior, Erastus Salisbury Field, William Thompson Bartoll, William M.S. Doyle, Aaron Dean Fletcher, Cephas Thompson, Frederick Mayhew of Martha's Vineyard and Giddings Ballou, who lived in Brewster for a few years. To varying degrees, their styles were flat and linear and they possessed a strong sense of design. Despite their lack of formal training, they often captured the essence of a personality - and did it with charm.

The paintings of husbands and wives in the His and Hers exhibition are all companion portraits, so called because they obviously belong together. Each pair of paintings has virtually the same dimensions, and often some element, such as background drapery, visually links the portraits. Usually, the husband and wife face each other. Occasionally, the wife holds a baby on her lap. In one case, her husband holds a child, too.

His and Hers was inspired by the three pairs of companion portraits of husbands and wives in the Cahoon Museum's own collection, including a Ralph Cahoon spoof featuring a sea captain and a mermaid. Other works have been borrowed from Fruitlands Museums in Harvard, Mass.; Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass.; Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine; Heritage Plantation of Sandwich; historical societies throughout eastern Massachusetts; and private collections.

Docent tours of the show will be held at 11 a.m. every Friday (except April 26, 2002).

The His and Hers exhibition is sponsored in part by Graham C. and Patricia S. Miller of Cotuit, with additional generous funding from Pennsylvania residents Dr. and Mrs. Barry L. Glaser.


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