Earl Cunningham, A Winter Outing, about 1930, Oil on fiberboard, Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello.
Earl Cunningham, Plantation, about 1955-1965, Oil on fiberboard, Collection of Peter and Cheryl, Merolo.
Earl Cunningham, The Twenty-One, 1977, Oil on fiberboard, Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello.
Earl Cunningham, Safe Harbor--Perkins Cove, detail, ca. 1930, Oil on fiberboard, Private Collection, Photo courtesy of Christie’s, New York.
Earl Cunningham, Blue Sail Fleet Returns, after 1949, Oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs.Michael Mennello.
Earl Cunningham, Red Sky Over Folly Beach, S.C., about 1975, Oil on fiberboard, Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello, Gift of The Honorable Marilyn L. Mennello and Mr. Michael, A. Mennello, 1997; 1997.162.
Earl Cunningham, Untitled, no date, Oil on fiberboard, Collection of Mrs. Eva Franchi.
Earl Cunningham, Sanctuary, 1934, Oil on fiberboard, The Mennello Museum of American Art, Gift of Michael A. and Marilyn L. Mennello.
American Folk Art Museum
2 Lincoln Square
(Columbus Ave. between 65th and 66th Streets)
Eva and Morris Feld Gallery
Earl Cunningham’s America
March 4-August 31, 2008
Earl Cunningham’s imaginary landscapes are unexpected and unlikely marvels: pink flamingos dot the shoreline of the Maine coast; New England cottages sit at the edge of Florida swamps; Viking ships float in harbors with schooners; and Seminole Indians wear feathered headdresses. In this make-believe world, Cunningham presents a nostalgic view of a simpler life when elements of modern life were absent. His fascination with the past was in line with a national rise ininterest in vernacular and American folk art in the 1920s and 1930s.
Earl Cunningham’s America examines the paintings of Earl Cunningham (1893–1977), one of the premier folk artists of the 20th century.
This retrospective shows the artist as a folk modernist who used flat space and brilliant color to create sophisticated, complex compositions on the meaning and nature of American life. The exhibition features 50 of more than 400 canvases Cunningham. The exhibition and the catalog trace the story of Cunningham’s life and place his work in the context of the folk art revival that brought Edward Hicks, Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and other folk masters to national attention. Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator for painting and sculpture, is the curator of the exhibition.
Mecklenburg says, “Recurring motifs — Seminoles, Viking ships, swamps and harbors — are the unlikely ingredients in Cunningham’s ideal model of America, which calls for coexistence, optimism, serenity and racial harmony. Like Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, Cunningham’s images offer the old and the ordinary as an antidote to change.”
Although Cunningham identifies many locations in titling his paintings and includes details specific to the place, such as the small figures of golfers in the foreground of the painting Hilton Head, he takes liberties with the appearance of a place. The perspective in Cunningham’s paintings is often distorted with multiple points of view. Gathering Clouds Off Little River Inlet and Safe Harbor – Perkins Cove combine a bird’s-eye view of the landscape with side views of boats, trees and houses. In Sunrise at Pine Point Maine, he uses viewpoint and spatial configuration to balance broad areas of color with minutely rendered, quasi-descriptive detail. Curtains in the windows of a building, an American flag, a lighthouse, reflections in the water and a winding path are design elements as well as emblematic notations.
Cunningham is also known for daring use of brilliant color. In Blue Sail Fleet Returns (after 1949), he combines bold shades of lavender, mauve, blue, rust, and olive and forest greens. Such paintings as Seminole Village, Deep in the Everglades and The Twenty-One feature intensely colored skies at sunset.
The Everglades represented serenity to Cunningham, who was aware of the impact of modern life on Florida’s environment and considered himself a conservationist. Like the places he painted, Cunningham often depicted both general representations of birds and specific species in his paintings. Seminole Everglades, with its dark shadows that evoke the murky swamps, is populated by a wide variety of birds including flamingos, wood ducks, owls and cranes.
Cunningham was born on a farm in Edgecomb, Maine, near Boothbay Harbor in 1893. He left home at 13 and supported himself as a tinker and a peddler. When he was 16, Cunningham, who lived in a fisherman’s shack on Stratton Island off Old Orchard Beach, began painting images of boats and farms on scavanged wood. In the early 1910s, Cunningham sailed on one a giant coastal schooners that carried coal, ice, naval stores and lumber between Maine, the mid-Atlantic states and Florida.
In 1915, Cunningham married Iva Moses. During World War I, he drove a truck for a naval yard and visited Florida for the first time. For the next 10 years, the couple spent winters in Florida — Tampa Bay, Cedar Key and St. Augustine. In 1937, troubled by marital problems, Cunningham left Maine and bought land in South Carolina, where he farmed and raised chickens.
Cunningham settled in St. Augustine in 1949, where he opened a curio shop called the Over Fork Gallery. He displayed his paintings there, though not for sale. In 1969, collector Marilyn Mennello convinced Cunningham to sell her a work; and in 1970, she made possible an exhibition of selected paintings at Loch Haven Art Center (now Orlando Museum of Art). In 1974, Cunningham’s second museum exhibition, Earl Cunningham: American Primitive opened at Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences.
Cunningham, who suffered from depression and paranoia, committed suicide Dec. 29, 1977. In 1998, the Mennello Museum of American Art, which is dedicated to displaying the majority of his work, opened in Orlando.