May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

River Townscape with Figures

Prudence Perkins (dates unknown) Improvement

Possibly Rhode Island

c. 1810

Watercolor on paper

18 1/4 x 22 1/4"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.48

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Prudence Perkins (dates unknown)

River Townscape with Figures

America as a republican ideal was equated with the classical idyll from the earliest national period. The idea was promulgated at the turn of the nineteenth century through the language of rhetoric on a large scale and through more personal mediums that touched individuals in their domestic lives. Schools were often instituted in pastoral settings that evoked Arcadia, removed from the corruption and complication of the city. The notion was further introduced into schoolgirl arts in various guises, such as this river townscape by Prudence Perkins in which the “shepherdesses” view the material world from a safe distance across a cleansing river.

Mourning needleworks and watercolors also drew on this association between nature and grace and housed the funerary elements in a natural setting, far from the earthbound aspects of the town. The influence of the needlework aesthetic and of mourning pieces is clearly at play in this watercolor, both in composition and technique. The town seen in the distance, the trees delineated in stitchlike strokes, and the combination of willows, oaks, and evergreens recall the visual iconography and religious symbolism of mourning art.

Stacy C. Hollander, “River Townscape with Figures,” 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.