August 30, 2011

At the Shelburne Museum: Sculpted Animals

Imagine this "Formal Horse" atop your barn, trotting boldly into the wind. This 19th century weathervane is part of the large collection of folk sculpture at the Shelburne Museum which consists of shop signs and whirlagigs, weathervanes and decoys, and miniature circus and circus parade, in style from refined to bold. The lines of this horse are so sensitive, so expressive of the floating power of this beautiful animal. It has as much life in its form as the more realistic horses on the Parthenon friezes.

The maker of this early 19th century weathervane took more liberties with its design, making the rooster from a large, sweeping S curve. The way the thin head and neck swoop into the body and back up into the large tail is almost musical in its composition. This rooster once adorned the barn of the Old Fitch Tavern in Bedford, MA.

This fiercely comic – look at those teeth! – fish was probably a trade sign and is from mid-19th century New York. It is also a proudly patriotic fish. Repeated overlapping curved lines simply represent its scales, light moons bounded by hills.

Here is another fish sculpture, much smaller and for a different use. I remember that during my first visit to the museum years ago I fell most in love with the bird and fish decoys because they were so new to me. I had never seen decoys before, and this collection opened up a whole new world to me. I admired the shapes, the colors, the crafting of these objects.

Shore birds, generally shown standing high on a post, are my favorites of the bird decoys with their very simple shapes. This 19th century bird from New Jersey is crudely carved, but at the same time its curves are perfect, from the swelling belly to the pointed tail, and the neck narrowing to the spherical head adds a touch of geometry and of humor, extending into the line of the beak.

The shapes of large herons, crows on their woven wire legs, and goose heads make a lively group. The gestures of the birds are so fluid and natural, although pared down to essential forms. (I apologize for the poor photograph, but I thought this display case so beautiful, even with the reflections.)

These are contemporary carvings, so lovely in their graceful lines. The makers of these decoys are so clearly enamored of their subjects, and so knowledgeable. The hand shaped a small life, with simplicity and grandeur.

The final two pairs of animals come from a miniature circus parade made by Roy Arnold 1925-1955, with the help of some assistants. The entire extravagant parade, with animals and performers, cowboys and clowns, tableaus and wild animals, stretches over 500 feet at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. It is a marvel and a delight, and calls up memories of circuses from childhood, when the world was mysterious and magical.

This is the final post in a series from the Shelburne Museum. The three previous posts:
At the Shelburne Museum: Hand Tools and Machines
At the Shelburne Museum: Abstraction in the Decorative Arts
At the Shelburne Museum: Daily Life


  1. Thanks especially for posting the photo of large herons which has a deep attraction for me. Also really appreciated yesterday's post about the woods and the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in your little corner of the world. We hear about it, but it is more real to see it through your lens. I hope all is recovering...

  2. Aren't those herons terrific, Julie.
    As for the storm recovery, in some communities its going to take a long time, but I'm so impressed with the way everything is organized and how everyone is helping.