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Long before we had metal highway signs and flashing billboards, people looked to colorful wooden signboards graced with emblems such as proud lions and patriotic eagles for direction and critical information. On June 30, Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society opens at the Hood Museum of Art. On view through Sept. 16, this exhibition will transport visitors to a time when lively signs for inns, taverns, and hotels turned country roads into open-air galleries that were accessible to all.
This exhibition features 24 of the most eye-catching signs owned by The Connecticut Historical Society, which has the preeminent collection of 18th-century and 19th-century tavern and inn signs in the nation. The Hood Museum of Art's display of Lions & Eagles & Bulls marks the first time such a large selection from the collection has been offered for public exhibition outside Hartford, Connecticut.
Bold lettering, ornate scrollwork, and most of all the colorful motifs and symbols - solemn bulls, prancing horses, and enticing foods - guided potential patrons while communicating secondary messages as well, some humorous, others patriotic.
Countless American painters, from the famous to the forgotten, met the demand for outdoor imagery. Because few signed their wares, it is difficult to match the names of the many known sign painters with surviving examples. An exception is Hartford artisan William Rice (1777-1847), whose lively signs - three of which are featured in the exhibition - bear his signature. Rice made sign painting a specialty, while other artisans practiced the art as a sideline or in conjunction with more prestigious easel painting.
Signmakers often embellished signs with inventive devices, including wood carvings and decorative ironwork, gilded lettering, and painted surfaces made dazzling by the addition of "smalt," or ground glass. Weather could add to the decorative effect by wearing away the more thinly painted background surfaces, giving the impression of low relief.
When damage from exposure became too severe, many signs were repainted, often with new designs. The multiple layers of paint - and history - that are integral to most outdoor signs present a challenge to modern-day scholars and conservators, who must decide which layer to privilege for exhibition and dating. The exhibition offers visitors exciting glimpses of the high-tech world of modern art conservation, showcasing the sophisticated procedures used by conservators at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center to examine and treat signs in the exhibition. The conservators' observations played a critical role in the research phase of this project, providing key insights into the construction and evolution of these signs over time.
Although abundant in their era, inn and tavern signs are today among the most elusive works of early American artists. Signs were either lost or painted over as businesses changed hands and new images were needed. Lacking the sentimental attachments of ancestral portraiture, many sign paintings were lost long before nostalgia made them appealing to early 20th-century antiquarians and collectors. "The bull and lion are fled," one painter lamented, but their rich artistic legacy lingers all around us, in productions ranging from quaint reproduction signage to contemporary artists' self-conscious experimentation with image/word combinations.
Highlighting the continuing, vital presence of signage in American art and culture, the Hood Museum of Art has organized a small, complimentary exhibition, titled Signspotting: Twentieth-Century Photographs, Prints, and Paintings from the Collection. This exhibition reveals 20th-century artists' enduring fascination with signs as a symbol of modern life. Selected by curatorial intern Brooke Minto '01, these images range from a Mississippi outdoor sign photographed by Walker Evans to a color screenprint of the Hollywood sign landmark by California artist Ed Ruscha.
Three public lectures in the museum's Loew auditorium will offer a range of artistic and historical perspectives on the Lions & Eagles & Bulls exhibition. On July 11 at 5 p.m., Susan Schoelwer, Director of Museum Collections at the Connecticut Historical Society, will present a slide lecture titled "Early American Tavern and Inn Signs: Glimpses of a Forgotten Genre of American Art." Schoelwer directed the major research and conservation project that culminated in the tavern and inn sign exhibition and its scholarly publication, for which she served as editor.
On Friday, July 27, at 4:30 p.m., Sandra L. Webber, Paintings Conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, will give a slide presentation titled "Preserving the Signs of Age: Challenges and Discoveries during the Conservation of Connecticut's Tavern Signs." Webber was the primary conservator to work on the tavern sign project for The Connecticut Historical Society. Her technical training and access to analytical resources at the conservation center have provided her with a truly multidimensional perspective on the creation of these works and their fascinating alterations over time.
Carolyn Weekley, Director of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Colonial Willamsburg, will present a slide lecture titled "Ornamental and Sign Painting and All of Its Branches " on Thursday, August 2, at 5 p.m. One of the foremost authorities on American folk art, Weekley will challenge the romanticized notion that sign painters and other so-called folk artists worked in isolation from their broader artistic environments. Exploring the relationship of sign painting to other ornamental arts, she will highlight the careers of such multitalented artists as Edward Hicks and Rufus Porter, who drew upon various design sources and worked simultaneously in a range of media and genres.
Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from The Connecticut Historical Society has been organized by The Connecticut Historical Society.
Funding for the exhibition and related catalogue has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., Aetna and the Aetna Foundation, the Connecticut Humanities Council, the Kohn-Joseloff Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation, and James B. Lyon. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art is generously supported by the Bernard R. Siskind 1955 Fund and the Hansen Family Fund.
This exhibition is accompanied by a 277-page color-illustrated catalogue featuring essays on The Connecticut Historical Society's extensive collections of early American signs, the cultural history of the signboard, the sources for and uses of imagery and symbols, and insights from conservators on the construction of signboards. The catalogue is available at the Hood Museum Shop for $29.95.
Opening Lecture and Reception
The Hood Museum of Art is located on Wheelock Street opposite the green in Hanover, N.H. Admission is free and open to the public. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Hood Museum Shop is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.. The museum and museum shop are wheelchair accessible. For additional information, please call (603) 646-2808.
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