Is that a painting of a quilt?

Administrators of the Federal Arts Project, a program of the WPA that employed out-of-work artists, aimed to create a systematic catalog of inspirational quilts and numerous other folkart objects, through the Index of American Design (IAD). Rather than take black and white photographs of weathervanes, toys, furniture, metalwork, and quilts, the IAD tasked unemployed artists seeking work relief to paint life-like watercolor renderings of objects in a form of hyperrealism reminiscent of trompe l’oeil. The results of this project are a vast archive of over 18,000 paintings of folk, decorative, and commercial art pieces painted by close to 1200 out-of-work artists, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.[1]

Conceived as a means to record a “quintessentially American style” and the “spirit of American design” the IAD charged artists with documenting American folk arts and crafts, with the administrators’ dream of creating a widely circulated record of American design that contemporary artists could draw upon, rather than continue to turn to exclusively European precedents, in order to answer the question plaguing many cultural critics: “Have we an American design?”[2] Project planners imagined that portfolios reproducing the watercolor paintings would be available through public libraries and community art centers, and that through this distribution system, the artists and designers of the future would have a distinctly American inspiration.  In doing so, IAD and other Federal Arts Project initiatives that documented the American past promoted what scholars have called a cultural or romantic nationalism.[3] In addition, this fit with a growing interest in American folk art, fueled by artists and collectors searching for the precursors to modernism in the carvings, metalwork, textiles, and paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Of the more than 18,000 paintings of objects now in the National Gallery, almost 700 of them feature quilts or details of fabrics from quilts. Rather than show an American tradition of making do amid adversity, the IAD reflected a record of American design that corresponded to a “dead” tradition of the past that was predominantly enjoyed by privileged white Americans, mostly from the East coast, and predominantly high-style. These fancy quilts shared little in common with the scrappy “make-do” ones that became more common during the Great Depression.

Among these ornate quilts are over one hundred examples of red and green applique quilts from the mid-19th century, 30 signature quilts, 28 crazy quilts, 15 white whole cloth quilts with ornate quilting and stuffing, and 14 early mosaic pieced quilts. There were also 4 paintings of bedcovers that we now call “Baltimore Album Quilts,” including this one documenting a quilt now in the International Quilt Museum.

There were exceptions, of course, like this Kentucky Log Cabin quilt painted by unemployed commercial artist Alois Ulrich. His rendering of pieced soft shirting fabrics, calico prints, and muted solids achieves the hyperrealism of trompe l‘oeil, particularly with his execution of the cascading curved quilting pattern commonly known as Baptist fans and the way the folded layers of the quilt hang on top of one another. He presents the quilt as one you would wish to curl up with, one that many previous users already had used in such fashion.

[1] For historical context and background on the project see National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives, “Finding Aid for the Records of the Index of American Design, 1929-2018 (Bulk 1936-1942),” December 2020; Virginia Tuttle Clayton et al., Drawing on America’s Past : Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (Washington [D.C.]: National Gallery of Art, 2002).

[2] Virginia Tuttle Clayton, “Picturing a ‘Usable Past,’” in Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (Washington [D.C.]: National Gallery of Art, 2002), 10; Victoria Grieve, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 127.

[3] On cultural or romantic nationalism see Jerrold Hirsch, “Kentucky Folk Art: New Deal Approaches,” in Kentucky by Design : The Decorative Arts and American Culture, ed. Andrew Kelly (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2015), 29–44, ; Erika Doss, “American Folk Art’s ‘Distinctive Character’: The Index of American Design and New Deal Notions of Cultural Nationalism,” in Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (Washington [D.C.]: National Gallery of Art, 2002), 61–73; Cogswell, “Introduction: From Making Do to How-To,” in Soft Covers for Hard Times by Merikay Waldvogel (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1990), 4.