Monday, January 19, 2009

The rise of American folk art: a quick look at The Pennsylvania German influence and Fraktur

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some to learn that the humble beginnings of folk art in America first arose, and were for a long time almost exclusively carried on by the Pennsylvania Dutch and Germans. It is historically clear that these people were virtually the only culture in Colonial America who possessed a strong, imaginative feeling for color and design and for creative art in their households; so that even their barns, fences, wagons and weather-vanes were not exempt from decoration. Even in death, they took their love of their artful decoration to the graves, as their tombstomes were often inscribed with ornate carvings like the image depicted on the plate above. They were a deeply religious, simple, hardworking people. The folk art that arose from their culture reflected the practicality of the life they lived and the culture they brought with them from their native Swiss and German cultures. Most notably the folk art that we can accredit to the Pennsylvania German culture are: pottery; slip-decorated ware (sgraffito ware), furniture, glassware and Fraktur work. Shown above, the typical Pennsylvania German "Blooming Heart" motif is done in a sgraffito technique on Redware. This plate was dated 1816 and the artist is unkown.

This month, we are going to highlight Fraktur work. Fraktur documents played a primary part of the life of the Pennsylvania German and Dutch household. They had a myriad of uses, serving to record births, baptisms, marriages, and important sacraments and celebrations. For nearly two centuries this art flourished in Pennsylvania; the art being usually practiced by schoolmasters clergymen or the occasional freelance artist who would create these items as a means to add to a meager income. These people had become highly skilled artisans in a trade, producing this decorative “Fraktur”.

Strictly translated, Fraktur is an ornate type of written or printed German, similar to Gothic lettering in English. Fraktur is used in older German books and printed documents. The word comes from Latin and means "broken script" (Bruchschrift), so called because of its ornamental curlicues that break the continuous line of a word. When a writer was finished with his work, he would then finish it off by decorating it with naïve watercolor drawings that included animals, angels, mermaids, flowers, birds, and hearts. The work of the Fraktur scribes and artists ranges from downright primitive to quite marvelous. From this tradition springs a rich source of the symbols we see commonly used in our folk art of today.

Common symbols today such as the heart or the tulip were a central theme in much of Fraktur work. The blooming heart is a combination of the heart and the lily-tulip or the rose of Sharon . It was common for the Pennsylvania Germans to write about, and envision, their hearts being the home of, and blooming with, their faith and belief in a promise of life after death. Like the heart alone, the blooming heart appears frequently on Fraktur and other Pennsylvania German arts and crafts. The vases of blooming flowers had the same meaning as the blooming hearts, only here the heart was replaced with a vase. This symbol shows up on all different aspects of Pennsylvania arts and crafts but rarely, if ever, is referred to specifically in their writings. One other very commonly seen symbol is the unique parrot-like bird that often appears in pairs. It is called the Dinklefink and it represents luck.

Certainly, religious overtones may be found in nearly every aspect of the Pennsylvannia German piece of Fraktur, but it also can be reasonably argued that the Fraktur artists drew many of these motifs for aesthetic rather than religious reasons. After all, the tulip was balanced, colorful and easy to draw.
Featured above, a Fraktur work by schoolmaster Hans Jacob Brubacher. A religeous text dated March 14, 1799. Hans Jacob worked in Province township, Lancaster County PA. This Fraktur piece comprises 10 verses from the book of Psalms and was created for Johannes Schenck, a well known and prominent Mennonite farmer of the area. Hans Jacob was the Schoolmaster of Johannes Schenck; who also created fraktur works of his own.

Bibliography and books of interest:
Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery, J.George Frederick, 1936
Mennonite Arts, Clarke Hess, 2002, Schiffer Publishing LTD. ( An EXCELLANT source for folk art and Pennsylvania German history)
The Pennsylvania Barn; it's origin, Evolution, and Distribution in North America, Robert F. Ensminger; published thorugh Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992


Rick Hamelin said...

While it is easy to confuse the two slip decorating techniques.It looks to me that this plate is not done with the scratch through technique called sgraffito. Although, there are some details which could have been defined or cleaned up with cutting such as the tulip petals but it is difficult to clearly see in this pic. This is actually a slip-trailed or quilled plate with the slip poured out of a bottle. The rim wave and straight line decoration was done on the wheel while the tulip pattern was executed free hand. Nice blog.

Whispered Secrets of a Primitive Past ~WSOAPP said...

Hi Rick! Thank you for stopping by. We are very honored to receive your input.

The wsoapp team