White-tailed Deer Family: Three Wall Sculptures by Noah Weiss
These large-scale carved deer – a buck, doe and fawn – are products of the artistic vision and incredible talent of self-taught carver Noah Weiss (1842-1907).
The wall sculptures are carved from pine – in relief on the front and flat on the back – to be approximately half life-size, and they are in fairly accurate proportion to one other.
The upright buck is 35” wide x 47” high; the grazing doe is 40” wide x 29” high; and the standing fawn is 25” wide x 20” high. (The shoulder height of an adult White-tailed Deer is 32” to 40” and their body length runs 52” to 95”.)
Weiss painted and varnished these deer, as he did all his carvings, and he added a real antler to the buck (he was also known to have added real antlers to a carving of an elk head, and horns to the carving of a bison head). Most compellingly, Weiss captured each deer’s elegant body shape and proportions – their long, thin legs, pointed snouts and alert ears.
These circa 1890-1900 deer carvings turned up recently in Northampton, Pennsylvania, the town where Weiss lived, worked as an innkeeper, and produced sculptural works of art to decorate the walls of his inn. Fortunately, newspaper accounts during Weiss’s lifetime as well as research by art historians have documented details of the life history and creations of this incredible self-taught artist.
Noah Weiss: Hotelier and “Untaught Sculptor”
Noah Weiss was born in 1842 in Pennsylvania where his paternal great-grandfather had settled upon emigrating from Germany. He grew up on a farm in the Lehigh Valley region (near Allentown, PA) where as a boy his artistic talents were recognized by a wealthy doctor who offered to send him abroad to study art. But his father declined, saying he needed Noah to work on the farm. Thus Noah had little formal education and no encouragement or tutoring in art.
It was not until 1872, when Noah had been married for several years and his only son Howard was three years old, that his latent artistic tendencies reemerged. Howard become ill, so Noah sat at his bedside carving toys with a pen knife to amuse him. He thus discovered a penchant for carving, and from that point on Weiss reportedly “left no workable piece of wood untouched if it was possible to embellish it.” (Ames & Fiske, 1985)
Weiss pursued relief carving as a hobby while continuing to make a living through other endeavors, including working in cigar manufacturing for ten years, with a coach company for three years, and at a food preserving company for three years.
In 1893 he became proprietor of the Allen House in the village of Siegfried (now Northampton, PA), finally discovering his perfect occupational niche as an hotelier. This gentle family man became a “warm and genial” innkeeper. Locally he was a popular figure known as “Pop” Weiss, described as a humble man who was loved by all who knew him.
By 1897 Weiss had built his own hotel, The Mt. Vernon Inn, which he designed as a replica of George Washington’s home. He ran that establishment for the rest of his life while pursuing his avocation: creating elaborate relief carvings to decorate the walls of his inn.
While maintaining his active hotel business, Weiss worked in the early morning hours on mural-size carvings depicting historical and biblical characters in iconic scenes, using just a pocket knife —thus earning a reputation as an expert “whittler” whose work exhibited “gusto and vigor.” (Robacker, 1973)
This 6’ x 6’ portrait of General George Washington on horseback which hung in the office of the Mt. Vernon Inn is considered to be one of Weiss’s finest carvings. The relief-carved horse and rider are mounted against an oil-on-canvas landscape background. A similarly large-scale (6’ 4” high x 9’ 7” wide) mural depicting Civil War General Philip Sheridan leading a cavalry charge hung next to the reading room at the Inn.
Although Weiss was not a religious man, he carved at least three Biblical scenes that were even more elaborate than his military murals: the birth of Jesus, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion—the latter of which purportedly took 14 months to complete. He made these murals available for public viewing in an outbuilding at the Inn which he called the Curio Hall.
Another theme Weiss depicted in his carved wall art was hunting. Viewers have noted that Weiss’s lively portrayal of the dogs in his hunting mural indicates that he was familiar with the behaviors of hunting dogs at work.
It is not surprising that Weiss had first-hand knowledge of animals and hunting, having grown up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. The following appreciative account of Weiss’s art that was written during his lifetime (Jordan, Green & Ettinger, 1905) mentions that Weiss also did taxidermy, another indication that he was a hunter:
Mr. Weiss possesses marked mechanical ingenuity and artistic skill. He is one of the most expert hand carvers in wood now known to the public, and carves out life-size ﬁgures which he afterwards paints, doing all the work himself. His master pieces are the Cruciﬁxion and the Lord’s Supper. His skill, however, does not end here, for he is an expert taxidermist and many proofs of his handiwork adorn the hotel.
Weiss’s hunting mural hung in the Inn’s reading room along with several other carvings, as described in a 1910 account of the author’s visit to the Mount Vernon Inn (Rominger & Bornman, 1910):
The interior of this hotel is beautifully decorated with the carvings of Noah Weiss. They at once excite the visitor’s admiration. As one enters the reading room, the most conspicuous display is a hunting scene in relief. All parts are colored in their natural hues. The hunter, with a dog and gun, is roaming through the woods in search of game. In this same room there is a carving of a covey of quail with a pointer nearby, a representation of the carver’s old homestead, and a Pittsburg-Philadelphia stage coach drawn by six gray horses . . . The remaining rooms on the ﬁrst ﬂoor are lavishly decorated with alligators; heads of horses, lions and bison; rural scenes; artistic furniture; etc.
Weiss’s appreciation for and familiarity with animals also extended beyond game and farm animals. One of our favorite Weiss animal creations, and the only one we had seen in person before acquiring the deer carvings, is more whimsical: a huge (9′ 5″ high x 12′ 6” wide) carved and painted fantasy forest filled with wild birds.
The central section is a large mirror with a tree trunk surround that has applied branches adorned with birds and nests. It is flanked by two oil-on-canvas landscape panels and two freestanding tree trunks populated with owls and other birds. This extraordinary carving is additional testimony to the fact that Weiss had no shortage of imagination or talent.
Noah Weiss’s Legacy
Weiss’s 1907 obituary hailed him as an “untaught sculptor” who was locally revered for gracing his hometown with truly awesome works of art. Noah’s son Howard Weiss kept the Curio Hall open to the public after his father’s death, charging visitors a small admission to view the carvings. But after Howard’s own death in 1937, most of Noah’s carvings were sold at auction, while a few were sold privately.
In recent years, several exhibitions of Weiss’s work have brought together some of his carvings from multiple collections, including five that were shown in 1991 at an exhibit in Reading, PA called “Just for Nice: Carving and Whittling Magic of Southeastern Pennsylvania.”
The introduction to the book of the same name that was produced in conjunction with the exhibition explains that “Just for Nice” is a Pennsylvania German colloquialism meaning that an object exists not for any utilitarian purpose, but simply for pleasure.
What an apt descriptor for the motivations of a man who never sold any of his carvings, but produced them solely for his own creative fulfillment, as well as to amuse his family, friends, hotel guests, and fellow townspeople.
Weiss’s White-tailed Deer
As is true of all Weiss carvings, these deer strike a pleasing balance between stylization and realism. The species’ gentle demeanor is captured, yet not sentimentalized.
The carvings are well preserved with some restoration and stabilization which can be seen from the back. Weiss’s original construction technique was to join several boards together, then carve the figures from the resulting large piece of wood.
The two larger carvings – the buck and doe – each have metal braces across the seams of joined wood, a technique that Weiss himself may have employed, although these brackets are likely later replacements.
Finally, there are also repairs to the ear and leg of the buck.
The result of the restoration is that each deer is structurally strong and sturdy.
Overall, the three deer show their nearly 120 years of age and history, while remaining remarkably crisp and visually appealing.
An article (Ames & Fiske, 1985) about Weiss in the American Folk Art Museum’s magazine The Clarion states:
It is in his portrayal of animals, even more than of people, that Weiss excels. The physical strength and personality of the creatures are rendered with sensitivity and conviction.
We agree! These three White-tailed Deer are superb examples of Noah Weiss’s artistic ability to convey the beauty and essence of animals using only wood and paint – and, most importantly, an expertly wielded pocket knife.
Ames, Walter M. and Fiske, Dana W. (1985). Noah Weiss Pennsylvania Folk Whittler. The Clarion.
Csencsits, Sonia. (2002). Noah Weiss Exhibition will Open Sunday. The Morning Call, July 6.
Jordan, J.W., Green, E. M. and Ettinger, G. T. (Eds). (1905). Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of the LeHigh Valley Pennsylvania, Volume II. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company.
Lindenmuth, Keri (2018). Northampton Area Historical Society Takes Photographic Journey Through the Past. The Home News, March 13.
Machmer, Richard S. and Rosemarie B. (1991). Just for Nice: Carving and Whittling Magic of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The Historical Society of Berks County.
Robacker, Earl F. and Ada F. (1973). Folk Whittling. Pennsylvania Folklife, Vol. 22.
Rominger, Charles H. and Bornman, Charles J. (1910). Noah Weiss, Wood Carver: An Unappreciated Genius. The Pennsylvania-German: Volume 11, No. 11.
Whelan, Frank. (1991). Whittlers Show Best of Folk Craft. The Morning Call, July 17.