Sinuous lines, fluid draping, and heart-shaped curves on the breasts of Joseph and Mary relate this sculpted group of the holy family to furniture styles of the late nineteenth century that were instigated by the aesthetic movement and a rejection of industrial production in favor of the touch of the human hand. Although the artist of this timeless and moving representation has not been identified, similarities have been noted with the work of John Philip Yaeger, a German-born woodcarver who was living and working in Baltimore, where he advertised himself as a “plain, ornamental and fancy carver.” Remembered principally for his cigar store figures, Yaeger was among those capable of carving life-size figures for churches, ships, and other purposes.
Beautifully balanced and proportioned, both of the adult figures tenderly hold one arm of the infant and reveal one foot beneath the pooled garments, as though together they form a single person. The infant Jesus raises one hand in the gesture of blessing. The still family group resonates with the spiritual power and iconic presence of sculpture of the medieval era, a period that greatly influenced the decorative arts of the day. It was probably intended to be placed within a niche or chapel of a Roman Catholic parish church, school, or other institution.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Holy Family,” 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.