May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Red-Breasted Merganser Drake and Hen

Lothrop T. Holmes (1824-1899) Improvement

Kingston, Massachusetts


Paint on wood with glass eyes

9 1/2 x 16 x 6" each

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Adele Earnest, 1994.14.1, 2

Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Lothrop T. Holmes (1824-1899)

Red-Breasted Merganser Drake and Hen

Although the fashioning of decoys was an indigenous technique adapted by European settlers in North America, the earliest decoys we generally see today were made in the nineteenth century, when they had achieved a high state of realism and were widely used by hunters for sport as well as for food. Decoys carved by Lothrop Holmes are among the finest that survive from this period. Holmes descended from a family of shipbuilders, and carving was second nature to him. An enthusiastic gunner, he created decoys primarily for his own use. Consequently, few examples of his work survive today, and the most prized are the mergansers, of which only around six are known. The carvings have a still and powerful presence that is enhanced by the beautiful painted surfaces. Holmes’s obituary tells of his work as a molder in the iron industry, and as a superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery in Kingston. It cites his love of music, especially the banjo, and that he was a Mason. However, no mention is made of the exquisite decoys for which Holmes is celebrated today.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Red-Breasted Merganser Drake and Hen,” 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.