May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Scituate, Rhode Island

c. 1842

Paint on pine, with leather hinges; lined with wallpaper and newspaper remnants, printed engraving, and ink drawing

10 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 12 3/4"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.22

Photo by Schecter Lee

Box with Heart Decorations 

A restrained palette and graphically strong geometric patterns yield a surprisingly modern and sophisticated aspect to this box. The proliferation of hearts, checkerboards, and other motifs interacting on the front and sides are lightly scribed into the wood, enhancing the depth and dimension of the form. It is lined with newspapers that are dated 1842, indicating the period during which it was made. The box itself is of simple and rough construction, lap joined with nails and hinged with leather, make-do materials assembled hastily. What the maker—a farmer—did not possess in terms of cabinetmaking skills, however, is compensated for by his outstanding sense of design and composition on the painted surface.

More than twenty such colorfully decorated and patterned watercolor drawings, toys, boxes, frames, and pieces of furniture were made by George Robert Lawton Sr. and his son George Jr. (1839–1883) between around 1838 and 1883. The earliest pieces, including this box, are the work of George Sr. The Lawton family had deep roots in Rhode Island, but in 1856 the family relocated to Portage County, Wisconsin, where Lawton had purchased 120 acres of land. There George Jr. was primarily responsible for the embellished pieces. Inexplicably, the family returned to Scituate, Rhode Island, in 1870, where George Sr. resumed his own artmaking activities.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Box with Heart Decorations,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.