BLACK, MARY CHILDS
was closely identified with the development of the field of American folk art, as an art historian, museum curator and director, and writer. She asserted that her interestin the subject came to her almost by inheritance. As a child in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she was born, she was impressed by two pairs of portraits of her ancestors, Hosea and Sarah Phillips Merrill, and Phillips and Frances Stanton Merrill. These portraits, which hung in the home of her grandparents, were by ErastusSalisbury Field (1805–1900). Black spent much of her professional life in a successful effort to identify, document, and exhibit the work of early folk painters. Field,among other artists, remained one of her enduring scholarly interests.The holder of a master’s degree in art history from George Washington University, Black was employed early in her career as a research assistant at the ColonialWilliamsburg Foundation in Virginia. In 1958 she became curator of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Williamsburg, and in 1961 was appointeddirector. Black not only helped to build the collection at Williamsburg but also undertook several notable projects there, including one devoted to the paintings of Edward Hicks (1780–1849), in 1960, and another to Erastus Salisbury Field in 1963. In 1964 she left Virginia for New York to become director of the Museum of Early American Folk Arts (later the American Folk Art Museum), which had opened its doors to the public the preceding year.Several artists will always be associated with Mary Black because of the significance of her pioneering research. In 1965 she published her conclusions about thewatercolor portraits of Jacob Maentel (c. 1763–1863) in
Art in America
as “A Folk Art Whodunit.” Later, in collaboration with the collectors Lawrence and BarbaraHoldridge, she demonstrated that Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) was the painter of a large group of portraits previously thought to be the work of as many as four different artists. She presented a comprehensive exhibition of Phillips’ portraits at the Museum of American Folk Art in 1969. Black is also recognized for her meticulous scholarship on New York’s earliest artists, including Pieter Vanderlyn (c. 1687–1778). Black also identified the “Aetatis Suae” Limner as NehemiahPartridge, and the Wendell Limner as John Heaton.
In 1970 Black was appointed curator of Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts at the New-York Historical Society, a post she held until 1982. Following her retirement, she continued to work in the field, as consulting curator to the Museum of American Folk Art. In 1984 she served as guest curator of a comprehensivetraveling exhibition of the paintings of Erastus Salisbury Field organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, and wrote the authoritative catalogthat accompanied it. Black was the author of many important published works, including the trailblazing
American Folk Painting
(1967), which she wrote with JeanLipman.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum; American Folk Art Museum; Erastus Salisbury Field; JacobMaentel;
Ammi Phillips; Pieter Vanderlyn
Erastus Salisbury Field: 1805–1900.
Springfield, Mass., 1984.Wertkin, Gerard C. “Mary Childs Black: In Memoriam.”
vol. 17 (summer 1992): 62–63