A folk art collection both strange and familiar

Addison Gallery of American Art

“Dancer,” a painted cherry and mahogany statue.

By Sebastian Smee Globe Staff 

ANDOVER — Milliner’s heads, butter prints, face jugs, cow creamers, ell rules, mangle boards, and wafer irons. What are all these things?

That many, if not most, need explaining today is strange, since they were once commonplace household objects, and, really, they are not so very old.


You can see them all, along with paper dolls, miniature tea sets, a wooden baby walker, ceramics, glassware, paintings, a quilt, and much else besides in “Making It Modern: the Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman” at the Addison Gallery of American Art. The show runs through Dec. 31.

They were collected by sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife, Viola, over a few short years in the early 1920s. In those days, it was not the fashion to take folk art seriously — certainly not seriously enough to collect it. The Nadelmans did. They spent a small fortune on folk art.

The Nadelmans were among the first to see connections between the immediacy and authenticity of folk art and the new emphasis on simplicity and liberated forms in modern art. (“Making It Modern,” by the way, is the most over-employed title in the art world. Perhaps a moratorium on using it again for a few years wouldn’t hurt?)

Addison Gallery of American Art

A window shade by an unidentified artist

Born to middle-class Jewish parents in 1882, Elie Nadelman grew up in Warsaw. He became interested in classical sculpture after a visit to Munich’s Glyptothek in 1902. (His wonderful later sculptures, some of which punctuate the show, can look like a cross between Constantin Brancusi’s work and ancient Greek Tanagra figurines.) On that same visit, he also saw Bavarian folk art. A seed was planted.

Living in Paris between 1904 and 1914, Nadelman was swept up in the modernist avant-garde. Leo Stein, who had brought Picasso to Nadelman’s studio in 1908, later purchased several of his Cubist-inspired drawings.


Emigrating to New York after the 1913 Armory Show, Nadelman fell in love with American popular culture and with a romantic idea of American cultural naivete, which not only fed into his own work but, later, his collecting.

In 1919 he married Viola M. Spiess, a wealthy widow. Together they purchased an estate in Riverdale, N.Y. After hoovering up as much folk art as they could find, they converted it into a museum, in 1924.

Viola was the daughter of a successful cigar manufacturer (fun to know when you’re looking at the two magnificent tobacco-shop figures in the show). From before she met Elie, she was interested in antique textiles — lace, coverlets, and rugs. Both the most beautiful piece in the show and the most poignant are textiles.

Addison Gallery of American Art

A 19th-century quilt from Maryland or Pennsylvania

A 19th-century quilt from Maryland or Pennsylvania is embroidered with evenly spaced tulip wreaths and a single grape-leaf vine, symbolizing fertility and good luck. It’s stunning.

Nearby, a “mourning picture” marks the passing of the 7-year-old maker’s teenage relative. It consists of rudimentary imagery — a weeping willow, a tombstone — and lines of poetry embroidered in silk thread on a linen ground.

The are several folk paintings on display. The most arresting is “Portrait of a Woman,” which depicts a pale-skinned beauty with a severe expression. She wears a pink scarf, a gold belt buckle, and striking yellow earrings which are set off by the sky-blue background.


The Nadelmans didn’t know who painted it or who the sitter was. Art historians now believe it may have been painted by Dr. Samuel Addison Shute or his wife, Ruth Whittier Shute. The Shutes specialized in portraits of young women who had left their family farms to work in the mills of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Most of the other pieces in this absorbing show are not images but practical objects. The cherry wood baby walker, which offers support to infants attempting their first steps, is a beautifully constructed and adorned artifact from northern Germany or the Netherlands.

There are also cooking tools, including a wafer iron, a herb grinder, and two broilers, that one longs to have in one’s own kitchen; and toys one would gladly present to one’s children. (Of course, those who really love this stuff need to go to the marvelous Shelburne Museum, in Vermont.)

Several adjoining galleries at the Addison have been given over to sculpture from the museum’s collection. They’re worth lingering in. Michael de Lisio’s figurine portraits of famous writers — including T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James — are a joy, and very much in the spirit of the Nadelman collection.

Quite different — and impressive — is the nearby installation of Paul Manship sculptures. In the next gallery there are notable sculptures in a more abstract vein by Betty Parsons, Martin Puryear, and Carroll Dunham, among others.

Nadelman, who didn’t become an American citizen until 1927, retired to Riverdale in 1929. The stock market crash hollowed out his and Viola’s finances, forcing them to close the museum and sell both the collection and their Manhattan home. Thank goodness the former, which ended up with the New York Historical Society, remains public.


At: Addison Gallery of American Art, 180 Main St., Andover, through Dec. 31. 978-749-4015,

Sebastian Smee can be reached at