Stenciled puppies, mid-19th century.
Stenciled puppies, mid-19th century. (Courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Two paintings now hanging side by side at the Williams College Museum of Art that capture the complicated lines drawn between "fine art" and "folk art."

Acclaimed American impressionist Mary Cassatt's "Ellen Mary Cassatt in a Big Blue Hat" from 1905 models painterly expressiveness, using a few well-placed wisps of brushstroke to capture the spirit and depth of her young niece's face.

In "Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn," by an almost unknown New England painter named Samuel Mills sometime in the 1840s, the child stands in front of a gate, holding a toy hoop in one hand and a flower in the other. The scene feels awkward and flat, and the painter had little formal training.

’Lake George’ by John Frederick Kensett
'Lake George' by John Frederick Kensett (Courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art)
But its owners prized it as a last memento of their daughter, who died shortly after Mills completed it.

In "Material Friction" Americana and American Art," WCMA's newly opened summer show, the museum aims to bring together the connections and distinctions between art objects in museums and those made for household decoration or for practical, everyday use. It challenges the thick, bright lines museums have often drawn to separate the two worlds.

WCMA director Christina Olsen said the exhibit gives the museum an opportunity to take a closer look at different materials and genres, the accepted canon of works, and how these works are traditionally displayed.

"We see our work as question-raising, exploratory and experimental," she said. "We're interested in asking questions like this, but not at the expense of gorgeous, satisfying, beautiful shows."

Kevin M. Murphy, the Eugenie Prendergast Curator of American Art at WCMA, said he began thinking about the show when he arrived at Williams last fall. Most of the works come from the collection of Williams alumnus Jonathan Fielding and his wife, Karin, mixed with a few key works from WCMA's collection.

"I felt it could be an interesting challenge to figure out innovative ways to work that that material," he said.

Fielding's interest in the art began with the well-known survey courses Williams taught back then. Later, while in medical school in Boston, he and a friend owned a gallery for awhile, but his interest grew when he purchased an 18th-century farmhouse in Maine, leading to a long collection of early American art.

The Fieldings had been in touch with the museum for a long time about a possible collaboration, but the moment arrived with Murphy, who is interested in the social and economic history of this kind of art.

"These objects provide a picture of life in early America that I find really fascinating," he said.

He finds connections and distinctions in the surprising diversity of objects on display -- from formal portraits to corset stays to "roundabout" chairs.

Many are touching in their simplicity. A needlework sampler created by nine-year-old Eunice Hooper in 1790 shows a prosperous New England farm, with the curious twist of a tiny Roman chariot barreling through the foreground. The image reflects a distant time but is also immediately familiar to any parent who has prized an object brought home from school.

"These objects are very easy for people to relate to, even though they were made hundreds of years ago," Murphy said.

Many of these objects offer insight into people who lived independent of trends in the mainstream culture. In the early years after American independence, the Federal style invoked ancient Greek democracies and the Roman Republic. But in simpler homes, Murphy said, the style was much more "ingenious and fun."

Ordinary objects, like candle sconces for walls, could be jazzed up. Lighting was important in the age before electricity. Murphy said having moved to New England from Southern California and the South, he now knows why.

"New England is dark," he said. "I understand why you'd want to improve that technology."

A pair of sconces backed by mirrored glass panels look like a classic disco ball. Murphy said on a trip to the Fielding's Los Angeles home, he asked if the piece had the same flashy effect. They lit the candles and found it did. Murphy said when it was made, the tallow candles would have sputtered more, creating an even more pronounced effect.

A student relaxes on the Ayes outside of WCMA.
A student relaxes on the Ayes outside of WCMA. (Eagle file)

Works offer windows into another time in unexpected details. In the 1831 "Portrait of Rollin Richmond of Barnard, Vermont," painted by either Asahel Lynde Powers or Amanda Power, a gentleman farmer sits for his portrait, his arm draped over a chair back, holding open a copy of a "History of Rome."

And the commercial role of the work sometimes appears in unexpected ways, as in "A Portrait of Two Children." In the 1840s, Sturtevant Hamblin's workshop specialized in churning out portraits in which bodies and gestures were all standard, and only the faces were made to order.

Olsen said museums and historic houses in New England often present work like this-- Bennington Museum, for example, will open an exhibit of folk art portraits this week.

"What we wanted to do is bring this work here," she said. "And bring it in a different way."

The questions and tensions the show raises will fuel a college course. Murphy will teach in the fall, examining the way museums in the past have chosen to present folk art.

Students will come up with alternative ideas for presenting the objects, and the musuem will adopt the best in November.

"It is going to be a laboratory environment," he said.

Olsen said this approach fits the museum's role.

"Museums in colleges and universities have a role to play in asking questions and thinking about the future of museums," she said.