Fenimore Art Museum to Present a Major Retrospective on the Work of Earl Cunningham

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., April 1, 2008—The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, will present Earl Cunningham’s America, an exhibition featuring the paintings of one of the premier folk artists of the 20th century, Earl Cunningham (1893-1977). This national traveling exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., will be on view September 27 through December 31, 2008.

This retrospective, accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, presents the artist as a folk modernist who used the flat space and brilliant color to create sophisticated compositions with complex meanings about the nature of American life. The exhibition features 50 of the more than 400 canvasses Cunningham painted during his lifetime. The exhibition and the fully illustrated catalog trace the story of Cunningham’s life and place his work in the context of the folk art revival that brought Edward Hicks, Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin and other folk masters to national attention.  

Cunningham’s imaginary landscapes are marvels of the unexpected and unlikely: pink flamingos dot the shoreline of the Maine coast; New England cottages sit at the edge of Florida swamps; Viking ships float in harbors with schooners; Seminole Indians wear feathered headdresses. In this make-believe world, Cunningham presents a nostalgic view of the past in which life is simple and elements of modern life are absent. His fascination with the past was in line with a larger national revival of interest in vernacular culture and American folk art in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Cunningham developed a distinct and personal lexicon that evoked his nostalgic version of an idyllic 19th-century world,” said Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator for painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and curator of Earl Cunningham’s America. “Recurring motifs—Seminoles, Viking ships, swamps and harbors—are the unlikely ingredients in Cunningham’s ideal model of America, which calls for coexistence, optimism, serenity and racial harmony. Like Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, Cunningham’s images offer the old and the ordinary as an antidote to change.”

Cunningham was born on a farm in Edgecomb, Maine, near Boothbay Harbor in 1893. He left home at 13 and supported himself as a tinker and a peddler. When he was 16, Cunningham, who lived in a fisherman’s shack on Stratton Island off Old Orchard Beach, began painting images of boats and farms on wood he scavenged. In the early 1910s, Cunningham sailed on one or more of the giant coastal schooners that carried cola, ice, naval stores and lumber between Maine, the Mid-Atlantic States and Florida.

Cunningham settled in St. Augustine in 1949, where he opened a curio shop called the Over Fork Gallery. He displayed his paintings there, although the works were not for sale. In 1969, collector Marilyn Mennello convinced Cunningham to sell her a work; and in 1970, she made possible an exhibition of selected paintings at the Loch Haven Art Center (now the Orlando Museum of Art). In 1974 Cunningham’s second museum exhibition, Earl Cunningham: American Primitive, opened at the Daytona Beach Museum of Art and Sciences.

Cunningham, who had suffered from depression and paranoia, committed suicide December 29, 1977. In 1998, the Mennello Museum of American Art, which is dedicated to displaying the majority of the artist’s work, opened in Orlando. Five years later, Cunningham was elected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

The catalog, published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and distributed by HarperCollings, is written by Victoria Mecklenburg, with essays by Wendell D. Garrett, senior vice president for American decorative arts at Sotheby’s in New York City; and Carolyn J. Weekley, the Juli Grainger Director of Museums at Colonial Williamsburg.

Earl Cunningham’s America is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Exhibition is made possible by generous support from Darden Restaurants Foundation; the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation; the Arts and Cultural Affairs Office of Orange County, Fla.; CNL Financial Group; Bright House Networks; Lockheed Martin; and Friends of The Mennello Museum of American Art. The exhibition’s tour is supported in part by the C.F. Foundation, Atlanta.

Following the Fenimore’s presentation of Earl Cunningham’s America, the exhibit will travel to The Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Fla. (March 6, 2009 – August 2, 2009) for its final venue on the national tour.

About the Fenimore Art Museum
One of the nation’s premier art institutions, the Fenimore Art Museum is home to an exceptionally rich collection of American folk art and American Indian art as well as important holdings in American decorative arts, photography, and twentieth-century art. Founded in 1945 in Cooperstown, New York, the museum is part of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA), founded in 1899. The museum’s renowned Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, housed in the American Indian Wing, is a masterpiece collection of more than 800 art objects, representing a broad scope of North American cultures. The collections of folk and American art include seminal works by Grandma Moses, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Cole, William Sidney Mount, and Benjamin West. The museum offers a range of interactive educational programming for children, families, and adults, including lectures and workshops for museum visitors and distance learning instruction for classrooms nationwide. The museum further explores and examines our cultural history by organizing and hosting nationally touring art and history exhibitions, including Grandma Moses: Grandmother to the Nation; Treasures from Olana: The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church; A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.; and Ralph Fasanella’s America.

The Fenimore Art Museum is located on 5798 State Hwy. 80, Lake Road, in Cooperstown. The museum’s Fenimore Café, overlooking beautiful Otsego Lake, features wonderful views and a tranquil setting amid the terraced gardens. The Museum Shop offers fine jewelry, art reproductions, and a wide selection of publications on folk art, history, and Native American art. Museum admission is $11 for adults, $9.50 for visitors age 65 and over, and $5 for children age 7 to 12; children 6 and under and NYSHA members are admitted free. Reduced price combination admission tickets that include The Farmers’ Museum and The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum are also available. The museum is open from April 1 through December 31; closed January through March, except for special events and school groups. For museum hours or general information, please call 1-888-547-1450 or visit www.fenimoreartmuseum.org.


For more information and images, please contact:
Christine Liggio/Public Relations Office
Fenimore Art Museum/ New York State Historical Association
Phone: (607) 547-1472/E-mail: c.liggio@nysha.org

Press Release Category: 
Exhibition Press Releases
Publication Date: 
March 2008