Monday, July 8, 2013

Phebe's paintings

So as we have learned, the last decade or so of Phebe Harriman's life was a sad one. She lost her only daughter to childbirth, then raised her grandson for six years until his father returned to take him away from her as well.

But Phebe's story is more than just this sad coda. Despite (or possibly because of) growing up isolated on a farm in rural Wisconsin during the earliest days of its settlement, Phebe grew up with an artist's eye. As an adult, she seems to have been an avid painter. When my great-aunt Corinne passed away, I drove up to her house in Manitowoc to buy items from her estate and discovered she had left a list of several family heirlooms that she hoped I would take in order to keep them in the Vaughn family. Some of these heirlooms were Aunt Phebe's paintings.

The crown jewel of the collection is this oil painting of a landscape scene, possibly inspired by her travels. It measures about 12" by 18":

(I had to take the picture at an angle, to avoid re-hanging the painting, hence the slightly crooked perspective.)
I absolutely love the lavender sky reflecting in the river and the serene little skiff sailing off into the distance.

Then there is this vertical landscape attributed to Phebe, which measures 12" by 24":

This one may be an earlier work; this painting displays less mastery of dimension than the first painting, as evidenced by the relatively flat rocks in the river and the way the water line cuts off rather abruptly in the distance. But the colors themselves are lovely and subtle: a peach haze in the sky, the burnt red of the leaves changing, the light reflecting on the river.

When I was looking through Corinne's things at the estate sale, I found a little painting underneath a blanket on a chair that seems to have been one of Phebe's as well. The styles are remarkably similar, and like the vertical landscape above, this smaller painting is painted directly on board. It measures 6" by 10".

And finally, the last painting I have by Phebe is a sweet little hand-painted scene on a butter paddle, which is all the more meaningful for potentially being her way of commemorating an item that was already a family heirloom in her day. (Pioneers to Wisconsin made their own butter using churns and butter paddles. It is likely that this butter paddle initially belonged to Phebe's parents, the original immigrants Sam and Sarah.) The paddle itself looks hand-carved from a single piece of wood and shows signs of use prior to being painted. I am guessing it was carved by Sam and used by Sarah before Phebe painted a pastoral river scene with a church and her signature sailboat (a favorite subject for her, it appears.) The butter paddle is about 8 inches long and 4.5 inches wide at its widest part.

Looking at her paintings, I am curious whether Phebe was self-taught and painted all her life or if she took it up after losing her daughter and possibly received instruction from someone associated with the Art Institute of Chicago, which held classes in nearby Delavan in the first part of the 20th century and was responsible for the presence of a small artist's colony there during that time. Phebe passed away in 1914 at the age of 75, and may have spent the last 10 years of her life attempting to paint away her pain under the tutelage of professional artists.

Either way, I am grateful to have inherited her paintings, which seem to me to transcend the label of folk art and reveal a true artistic talent.