We know what happened to Laura Hall. As for James Brown, the talented man who wonderfully put her likeness on canvas in 1808, we know very little.
Brown’s large painting, titled simply “Laura Hall,” will be one of 55 pieces of art on display in “American Masters: From Thomas Cole to Grandma Moses,” opening Saturday at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown and running through June 2. The exhibit will return later in the year and be open to the public Oct. 19-Dec. 29.
Hall was just 20 and living with her parents in Cheshire, Mass., when she posed for Brown, a talented but little-known artist who painted a handful of Massachusetts subjects from 1805 to 1808. While we know that Hall married Ambrose Kassan and eventually settled in Deerfield, Oneida County, where they raised seven children, Brown’s story remains a mystery.
“No one knows much about him, and for the longest time we knew him only as J. Brown,” said Michelle Murdock, director of exhibits at the Fenimore. “He’s only identified with about two years’ worth of paintings, but he’s obviously very accomplished to take on such a large-scale portrait, and to beautifully execute it. What happened to him, we just don’t know.”
‘American Masters: From Thomas Cole to Grandma Moses’
WHERE: Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 State Highway 80, Cooperstown
WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (exhibition opens Saturday), through June 2, and also Oct. 19-Dec. 29
HOW MUCH: $12 for adults (13 and over); $10.50 for seniors (65 and over), free for children 12 and under
MORE INFO: 607-547-1400, www.fenimoreartmuseum.org
The Brown painting is one of the largest in the exhibit, measuring 78 inches tall, and is one of Murdock’s favorites.
“It is really hard to pick a favorite, but I definitely have a soft spot for ‘Laura Hall,’” she said. “She’s just so commanding, especially when she’s up on the wall and she towers over you. But she’s also warm and welcoming. There’s something whimsical about her. Her feet are splayed; the toes are pointing in different directions, and I find that so very endearing.”
While Brown and his work remain relatively unknown, “American Masters: From Thomas Cole to Grandma Moses” does include some of America’s most popular painters, beginning with the two attached to its name.
“We used their names with the title because they’re among the most well-known American artists,” said Murdock, “and it also connotes the idea that the span of this exhibit covers a great time frame. The Cole piece is from 1826, Moses from 1943, and while we have earlier and later paintings on display, those names give you an idea of what we’re doing.”
Cole is the individual generally credited with the creation of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that heralded the sudden popularity of landscape paintings early in the 19th century. Moses, from nearby Eagle Bridge, Washington County, became a popular folk art painter relatively late in her life. She died in 1961 at the age of 101.
“This is really a celebration of our collection presented in interesting groupings that are out of the norm,” said Murdock.
“Typically, we might have all the folk art hanging together, or all the portrait art. What we’ve done is we’ve used a more thematic grouping. For instance, we have a popular portrait of Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat, and next to it we have paintings of the Hudson River and landscapes associated with the river.”
The Fulton painting was done by Benjamin West in 1806, while another famous portrait is the image of Alexander Hamilton created by George Howorth in 1853. Also, Albany area artist Ezra Ames got Stephen Van Rensselaer to sit for him in 1819, and while most of the exhibit consists of large oil paintings, there are some exceptions, including three bronze pieces of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Dolley Madison, all done by John Browere in 1940.
Photographs are also in the exhibit, including a glass plate negative from the Smith & Telfer firm, which documented Cooperstown history for nearly 100 years.
Other artists making up the exhibit include Walker Evans, William H. Powell, George Freeman, Samuel Miller, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Ralph Earl, George Henry Durrie, Thomas Doughty, Frank Waller, Ralph Fasanella and Asher B. Durand.
Also featured are works celebrating the founder of Cooperstown, James Fenimore Cooper. In 1823, William Dunlap painted “Scene From James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Spy’,” and in 1855 James William Glass Jr. painted a “Scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Prairie.’ ” A portrait of Cooper’s wife, Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, is also in the exhibit and was painted in 1816 by Freeman.
Stories behind the art
There’s an interesting story behind almost every painting and every artist, according to Murdock. Samuel F.B. Morse, for instance, was quite an accomplished painter before becoming famous for his invention of the telegraph. Morse, whose portraits of Samuel Nelson and his wife are in the exhibit, earned his patent for the telegraph in 1847, around 20 years after he painted the Nelsons.
“Morse wanted to paint scenes from history, scenes of historical significance, but all he was getting commissioned for was portraits,” said Murdock. “He was a very accomplished portraitist, and, while I don’t think he necessarily hated doing portraits, he preferred history painting.”