May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Man Feeding a Bear an Ear of Corn

Artist unidentified Ingenuity

Probably Pennsylvania

c. 1840

Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper

5 5/8 x 7 1/2"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.37

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Man Feeding a Bear an Ear of Corn

In this watercolor a man is feeding an ear of corn to a bear who appears small and friendly. It is painted in a style reminiscent of the Pennsylvania German art of fraktur, and includes a tulip, stars, and a crescent moon, motifs that appear on printed almanacs. The elements of a black bear, tree, and dog on the roof of the house, however, may be based on the sport of black bear baiting. Historical references cite this practice in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “[I]t is said that bear-baiting was a frequent pastime in the county as late as 1815. . . .” and “On the 1st of January, 1807, John Worman had a great bear-bait at his hotel. . . .” As a sport, black bear baiting has a long history in Europe. In early America hounds were bred specifically for tracking black bears and herding them to a tree, where they could be hunted and collected. The large animals were perceived as a threat to settlements and assumed mythical dimensions as symbols of all that was unknown about the land.

Yet another interpretation of the watercolor may lie in the practice of putting exotic animals on display in front of public houses to draw custom. While bears could not be considered as exotic as elephants, lions, and camels, they were exhibited in Pennsylvania as attractions outside establishments such as public taverns. In his zoo and museum at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Charles Willson Peale exhibited two large grizzlies that had been captured by explorer Zebulon Pike.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Man Feeding a Bear an Ear of Corn,” 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.