Hunter with Dog: A 19th Century Vernacular Sculpture
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.
The products of self-taught artists were not necessarily rudimentary or naive, however, nor were folk artists necessarily unskilled. Indeed, this hunter sculpture was clearly the product of an artisan who was both a skilled carver and a creative designer of three-dimensional figures.
The carving is minimalist and stylized, distilling the essence of the animate and inanimate forms being portrayed—a man and his dog, as well as his clothing, gun and shot pouch. This is an approach that is perhaps more familiar to us through modernist artworks of the early- to mid-1900s.
In fact there is a tangible connection between 19th century American folk art and early 20th century modern art. Avant-garde modernists began acquiring American folk art in the 1910s because “it was like modern art: it rejected a realistic or illusionistic presentation in favor of a simplified and stripped-down-to-an-essence approach” (Jacobs, 1995). In this sense, nineteenth century folk art was a forerunner to the spirit inherent in 20th century modernism.
A leading figure in tracing the aesthetic connection between early American folk art and modern art was the museum professional Holger Cahill who organized an exhibition in 1931 at the Newark Museum called “American Folk Sculpture: The Art of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Craftsmen.” Then in 1932, when he was acting director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he presented an exhibition titled “American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man, 1750-1900,” and in 1933 he mounted another exhibition of early American folk art called “American Sources of Modernism.”
This sculpture of a hunter with his dog would no doubt have been a worthy candidate for Cahill’s exhibitions that explored folk art as a prelude to American modernism.
The groove-carved hair and minimalist faces of these American wooden doll heads made in the first half of the 19th century have a stylistic resemblance to the hunter’s head.
This portrait bust of a gentleman, made circa 1840 from a piece of basswood, also has similar characteristics to the hunter sculpture in the style of the face, the minimally relief carved clothing, and the figural portrayal of a man from one block of wood.
While the identities of the creators of the folk carvings shown above are lost to history, we do know the name of the creator of the hunter sculpture, which enabled some further investigation.
Who Was James Smith?
Most American folk art was unsigned and thus truly anonymous. Although this sculpture is signed, it is not by a recognized artist. Just as today there are millions of artistically talented people who never pursue art as a career (likely we all know some of them among our own families and friends), James Smith was a regular person whose surviving work is a testament to an artistic talent not otherwise documented in the annals of art history.
We were able, however, to find out more about James Smith through the most comprehensive early record of “non-notable” common people that exists: the United States Census, which has occurred every 10 years since 1790. The state of New York also conducted its own census every ten years from 1825-1875, so by combining the two types of censuses it was possible to get a thorough record of people living in Albany every 5 years during the mid-19th century.
We scoured both the U.S. and New York State censuses from 1840, 1850 and 1855 for a James Smith living in Albany during those years. We found six adults named James Smith in those records, born from 1778 to 1808 (making them 27- to 64-years old in 1842), so all were of an age when it would have been possible to produce such a skillful carving.
We dug further to find clues to discern which of these James Smiths might have been a carver. Luckily the U.S. census also documented each man’s occupation. The six Albany James Smiths were recorded as laborers, farmers, a “plummer,” and a shoemaker. All but the shoemaker were also heads of households with wives and several children.
This led us to zero in on James Smith the shoemaker as our possible carver. He was born in 1808, making him 34 years old in 1842 (he was listed simply as “between 30-40 years old” in the 1840 census, and as 47 in the 1855 census). He was recorded (along with a man named Thomas Johnson) as a boarder with the Hill family, the father and two sons of which were also shoemakers. James Smith, like his landlords the Hills, was also an immigrant from Ireland.
A shoemaker would have had access to a workshop and tools that could have been used in off-hours to pursue a sculpting hobby.
Shoemaking in the 19th century required fine handcrafting skills to cut, shape and sew leather into shoes.
Shoemaking also required wood carving skills, as shoes were shaped on hardwood forms called shoe lasts which shoemakers carved for each style of shoe they made.
Thus a hardwood such as the black walnut that this sculpture was made from would likely have been in stock in the shoemaker’s shop, along with the carving tools to shape it.
The only place on the hunter carving where an additional segment of wood is pieced in—in a manner similar to the segments of the walnut shoe form above—is to form the dog’s paw.
Shoe lasts were in themselves minimalist sculptures, stripped to the graceful essence of the shape of a foot without the anatomical details that a fine art sculpture or painting of a foot would require.
Although the other James Smiths living in Albany between 1840-1855 who were laborers and farmers could also have had a carving hobby, it would not have been a craft that they honed in their everyday work. Also, being a single man with no head-of-household responsibilities meant that a bachelor such as the Hill’s boarder James Smith could have had leisure time to work on refining his sculpting craft.
While it is impossible to verify the full identity of the hunter sculpture’s creator with complete assurance, contextual reasoning points to it being the James Smith who was an Albany shoemaker. The hunter he portrayed could have been his landlord John Hill, one of Hill’s sons, his fellow boarder, or another friend. It could also have been a self-portrait posed with his canine companion.
The Power of Minimalist Vernacular Sculpture
Although it is an intriguing exercise to try to track down the true identity of this folk artist and imagine the details of his life, in the end what matters most is the potency of the work itself. This carving is testimony enough to James Smith’s talents, no matter how they were honed.
This remarkably simple, skillfully executed piece of vernacular sculpture manages to communicate the bond between a man and his dog. As viewers, we in turn feel a connection to those feelings that inspired James Smith to transform a block of wood into a powerfully uncomplicated representation of two living beings in a captured moment of time.
Jacobs, J. (1995). A world of their own: Twentieth-century American folk art. Newark, NJ: Newark Museum.
Maresca, F. & R. Ricco. (2002). American vernacular: New discoveries in folk, self-taught, and outsider sculpture. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.