The Guennol Heron
The Guennol Heron
The Guennol Heron
Massachusetts, c. 1900
41 3/4 in. tall
This life-size wading bird hails from the extraordinary Guennol Collection, built by Alastair B. Martin. The Guennol Collection was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Adele Earnest cataloged the American birds for The Met’s two-volume publication on the Guennol Collection.
“The aim of the Guennol Collection,” writes Earnest, “has not been to search out representative examples of the many categories of folk art but to hunt for superior objects that captivate the heart as well as the eye. Choices have focused on sculptural, three-dimensional carvings in wood.”
She discusses this exact heron in great detail, “In the early years of this century it was fashionable to decorate a hall, parlor, or conservatory with a standing crane or heron. Such decor was favored by the Roosevelts, Cabots, and Vanderbilts - the families who hunted, fished, and sailed, and wished to transfer their enthusiasm for the great outdoors to the interiors of their homes. Also during those first decades many naturalists tried to capture the elusive quality of avian grace in paintings and carvings. American bird painters of this period, such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes and John Chapman, received recognition for their achievements, but bird carvers were mostly unknown - partly because many specialized in decoys, and carvers of such functional items were not considered artists.
“In Massachusetts, A. Elmer Crowell and another distinguished carver, Joseph Lincoln (1859-1938), made decorative birds, although their reputations were based on their decoys. A splendid blue heron by Crowell is on exhibition at the Heritage Plantation Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The Guennol heron bears a stronger resemblance to the work of Lincoln, who used a combination of wood and canvas and painted in a more stylized manner than Crowell. However, it is still not possible to attribute the Guennol heron to a specific carver, although the construction reflects the work of Cape Cod carvers in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
“The heron stands in a watchful position, ready to move. Tall, delicate legs support a beautifully modeled, hollow body that was fashioned of wood covered with canvas - probably sized before it was stretched over the wood as tightly as a skin and then painted. The inner structure can only be guessed at, but hollow frames were usually constructed of ash strips that bent without splitting when steamed.
“The famous S-curve of the heron, which has intrigued artists for centuries, is seen in all its elegance when the bird is viewed in profile; the movement begins at the head, with its forceful beak, and continues down the curvaceous neck, along the breast, to the dropped tail. The feathers on the slate gray body are drawn with fine, painted lines that become formalized at the tail in a studied, parallel pattern of dark bands edged with white. The neck is ash white, in contrast to the dark tones of the head and body.
“The Guennol great blue heron graced the conservatory of a home in Eastham, Massachusetts, from 1920, when the bird was received as a wedding present. This noble heron combines all the elements of color, form, and attitude that characterize America’s most aristocratic bird.” The “aristocratic” heron has not escaped the interest of collectors; a related Cape Cod carving set the auction record for the species at over $200,000.
The underside of the base of this carving is inscribed “M.M.A.” Earnest is correct to address this bird’s relationship and close proximity to the works of Massachusetts masters, namely, Crowell and Lincoln. A close examination of the carving’s feather paint bears a striking resemblance to that seen on the John C. Phillips rig running curlew in the Tieger Collection, making that connection well worth further examination. Original paint with wear, including some flaking and age lines.
Provenance: Private Collection, Eastham, Massachusetts, acquired as a wedding gift, 1920
Alastair Bradley Martin, The Guennol Collection
Herb Wetanson Collection
Literature: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Guennol Collection: Volume II," New York, NY, 1982, pp. 270-272, exact bird illustrated.
Loy S. Harrell, Jr., "Decoys: North America’s One Hundred Greatest," Iola, WI, 2000, pp. 64-65, Phillips rig curlew with similar paint illustrated.
"Photos from Readers," Decoy Collector's Guide, 1964, p. 22, related wading bird illustrated.
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