This gracefully stylized, full-figure, three-dimensional portrait of a hunter with his dog, is carved from black walnut. It is signed on the bottom in careful cursive lettering: “Jas. Smith 1842 Albany, New York.”
The carving captures the affectionate relationship between the man and his dog. The dog looks relaxed, faithful and trusting, while the man conveys his own attachment to the dog by letting it rest its head comfortably, almost possessively, across his thigh.
The following photos from the same time period—daguerreotypes from the 1840s to 1860—show very similar poses of hunters with dogs and shooting accessories. Unlike the smiling norm of modern photo portraits, these men look rather formal and somber, as does the carved hunter. (Images sourced online from ebay and other auction sites.)
Although the hunter sculpture is relatively large for a figural wood carving (16″ high, 10.5″ deep, 5″ wide), the overall detailing is minimal. The man’s face, ears and hair are representationally rather than realistically carved,
as are the dog’s body and face.
The hunter’s clothing is similarly sparsely represented as a simple single-breasted coat with a collar continuous with its lapel.
The only other elements in the sculpture are the hunter’s gun and shot pouch, both of which are carved with just enough detail to capture the essence of the objects and communicate clearly what they are.
We believe that it is the minimalist representation and restraint in decorative detailing that give this sculpture such a compelling presence.
This carving is a stellar example of a genre of art created by untrained artists, also known as “vernacular art” or folk art to distinguish it from fine art produced by professional artists. In 18th and 19th century America, where academically trained artists such as Charles Wilson Peale painted fine oil portraits of famous politicians and war heroes, regular people such as Jas. (19th century shorthand for James) Smith used materials they had on hand to capture familiar scenes and people in their everyday lives.