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Earl Cunningham's America

March 13 - August 2, 2009


Since his death in 1977, Cunningham's work has received an overwhelming amount of attention and he has secured a place as a major Twentieth Century American Folk artist. In 1986, The Museum of American Art, New York, launched a national tour of his works. Since then, his paintings have not only been shown throughout the country, but a number of museums have also acquired his work, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Earl Cunningham's America is returning from it's national tour to the Mennello Museum of American Art, showing from March 13 through August 2, 2009. The exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


About Earl Cunnungham

Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) was a master of the unexpected. In his America, flamingoes wade along the Maine coast, schooners sail past canoes paddled by Indians, and Viking ships anchor in the brown waters of Florida's swamps. He rendered real locales in vivid colors not usual in nature and placed elements of myth and legend among neatly rendered buildings and lighthouses or alongside small figures absorbed in their everyday tasks. He brought to it all a deep belief in man's ability to live in harmony with nature. He fashioned a world where past and present merge and time is defined by sunsets, dawns, seasons, and storms. (left: Earl Cunningham (1893-1977), The Twenty-One, 1977. Oil on Masonite.)

Attempts by critics and journalists to sum up Cunningham's contribution to American art and culture have left us with a wealth of descriptions: "American fauve," "Grandma Moses," "folk modernist," and "primitive genius" -- the variety of terms is an indication of the richness and variety of his work. He expressed an ambition to complete a thousand paintings in his lifetime; in the end, he produced more than four hundred works. Most are sea- and landscapes, and the titles often refer to places he visited as he traveled along the Atlantic coast between Maine and Florida.

Cunningham's paintings, with their vivid palette and unique visual vocabulary, leave an indelible impression on the viewer. Like Paul Gauguin, Marsden Hartley, and Stuart Davis, he treated colors as expressive abstract elements rather than having them act in traditional representational roles. He repeated favorite visual tropes over many decades. In Seminole Indian Summer Camp, -- as well as Camp David, Seminole Village with Lavender Sky, and many other works -- schooners, Viking ships, Indians in canoes, birds, tress, flowers, and small figures occupy the picture plane in impossible proximity, violating laws of time and space. His ability to combine the symbolic with the specific and his habit of omitting references to the modern world while freely inserting elements from an imagined past earned him the designation of memory painter. (right: Earl Cunningham (1893-1977), Seminole Everglades, 1945. Oil on Masonite)

Cunningham was a creative and restless individual who grew up in Edgecomb, Maine, near Boothbay Harbor. He left home at thirteen to work as an itinerant tinker and peddler. As a young man, he studied coastal navigation, earned a license as a harbor pilot, and sailed on a schooner carrying cargo between Maine and Florida. And he painted -- mostly pictures of ships that he sold for fifty cents each. During the 1920s and 1930s, he spent winters in the south, excavating relics from Indian mounds, collecting coral that he sold to the summer tourist trade in Maine, and storing away ideas for his pictures.

In 1949, Cunningham settled in St. Augustine, Florida. He opened an antique shop on St. George Street that sold crockery, old magazines, and curios and displayed his paintings with a sign that read "Not for Sale." He worked constantly and exhibited occasionally, although at first critical attention proved elusive.

Cunningham clearly loved the lush, subtropical character of his adopted home. He populated Houseboat on Flamingo Bay with local birds and a single boat, its sails stretched by an imaginary wind, gliding across golden water.

Cunningham had suffered from bouts of depression at least since his arrival in St. Augustine. Journal entries record harassment by neighborhood youth and his fear that arsonists would set the gallery on fire. Although he wrote only occasionally, each passage reveals a troubled mind, and on 29 December 1977, Cunningham took his own life. In his paintings he recorded memories of safe harbors, inlets, and islands that offer protection from high winds, turbulent seas, and, metaphorically, the difficulties Cunningham faced living in mid-twentieth-century America. (left: Earl Cunningham (1893-1977), Nassau Sound, 1945. Oil on Fiberboard)



Earl Cunningham's America is a 160 page catalogue authord by By Wendell Garrett, Virginia Mecklenburg and Carolyn Weekley, published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 2007. ISBN 1588342492, 9781588342492. Smithsonian American art Museum says of the book: "Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) was one of the premier folk artists of the twentieth century. Earl Cunningham's America presents Cunningham as a folk modernist who used the flat space and brilliant color typical of Matisse and Van Gogh to create sophisticated compositions. Wendell Garrett brings his broad knowledge of decorative arts and folk art to bear, placing Cunningham in the context of ideas and events. Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, traces Cunningham's life and situates his work in the context of the folk art revival that brought Edward Hicks, Grandma Moses, and Horace Pippin to national attention. Carolyn Weekly, director of museums at Colonial Williamsburg, shows how Cunningham's style developed over the course of his career." (right: front cover of Earl Cunningham's America, courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)


About the Mennello Museum of American Art

In November 1998, the City of Orlando opened a new museum, The Mennello Museum of American Art, that is situated on a beautiful lake in the cultural Loch Haven Park in Orlando, Florida. The basis of the museum's collection is the work of Earl Cunningham, whose paintings were donated by collectors: Marilyn (1925-2006) and Michael Mennello.

The Museum is owned and operated by the City of Orlando, FL and is an Institutional Member of The American Association of Museums, The Southeast Conference of Museums, The Florida Association of Museums, and The Florida Art Museum Directors Association. The Musesum's location is 900 East Princeton Street, Orlando, FL 32803. For hours and fees please see the museum's website.

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