May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Probably Westport, Massachusetts

c. 1830–1835

Watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper

12 3/8 x 14"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.39

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

The Prodigal Son

Few women during the early nineteenth century practiced as professional artists, yet many were engaged in artistic activities they had begun as schoolgirls. A number of watercolors by Ruby Devol Finch have been known for some years, including portraits of friends and neighbors in the community of Westport and Westport Point, Massachusetts, family records, and two versions of the parable of the Prodigal Son, but until recently little was known of the artist herself. Finch was active between 1831 and 1843. New scholarship reveals that she was born Aruba Devol, in Westport. She married William Finch of New Bedford in 1832, and was the mother of a daughter born five years earlier. A previously unknown drawing, probably dating to 1832, may be a marriage portrait of the artist and her husband.

This is the later of the two versions of the Prodigal Son. Like an illuminated manuscript, the narrative unfolds as one reads through nine sequential boxes. The verses in this version are not the traditional words of Luke 15:11–32 but possibly Finch’s original rhyming scheme. Each of the illustrated cells offers wonderful insights into contemporary fashion, dance, architecture, and furnishings. The artist also used the individual depictions as the basis for additional single-image drawings.

Stacy C. Hollander, “The Prodigal Son,” 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.