May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017


c. 1840–1844

Watercolor and pencil on paper

19 1/4 x 23"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.15

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Mary B. Tucker (1784-1853)

Learning the ABCs

The education system in America was undergoing significant changes when this watercolor was painted. Although government-mandated education was still decades away, there was a growing movement to replace home or private schooling with common schools available to all segments of the population. Educator Horace Mann was one of the primary voices behind this movement, as industrialization, urbanization, and the growing economic divide increasingly disrupted traditional rural and agrarian patterns. The two young childrenin this large-sheet watercolor harken to such traditional life. The younger child is still a baby, and grasps a straw rattle; the older child holds an illustrated volume entitled Primer. This was an illustrated alphabet book intended to teach letters and simple words.

To date, nine watercolor portraits can confidently be attributed to the elusive artist Mary B. Tucker, and eight more are signed with her name and dated between 1840 and 1844. Past conjecture about her identity placed the artist in Boston and the Concord-Sudbury area of Massachusetts. Recent research suggests she is Meribah Mowry of Douglas, who married Chilon Tucker of Uxbridge in 1816.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Learning the ABCs,” 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.