has played a vital role in the history of the American Folk Art Museum, both as a collector and as an officer of the board of trustees, serving since 1973 as treasurer, president, and chairman. A longtime advocate for expanded museum quarters, Esmerian’s support was pivotal in the acquisition in 1979 of two properties that would become the future site for the American Folk Art Museum, at 45 West 53rd Street. In 2001, Ralph Esmerian began transferring to the museum more than four hundredworks of art promised from his prestigious collection in celebration of the opening of the museum’s new building, designed by the firm of Tod Williams Billie TsienArchitects. These comprised the inaugural exhibition “American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum.”Over the years, the Esmerian collection has come to be regarded as a benchmark for quality through masterworks such as
The Peaceable Kingdom
by Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849) and
Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog
by Ammi Phillips (1788–1865). Many of the artworks were included in the influentialexhibition “Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776–1876,” which was presented in 1974 by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and have since beenwidely exhibited.Esmerian is a fourth-generation dealer in colored gemstones, a business started by his great-grandfather in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He was born in Paris to aFrench-Armenian father and American mother, and the family moved to New York when he was an infant. Following his graduation from Princeton University in 1962with a degree in French literature, Esmerian taught for two years at Athens College in Greece. As he traveled through Greece during those years, he was drawn to pottery as an art form and became increasingly aware of its evocative power in recalling ancient history and culture.As a foreigner living in Greece, Esmerian acquired a new perspective on America and was intrigued by the seeds of civilization that had grown into the society heknew. Soon after he returned to the United States, in 1964, he purchased a small piece of redware that he learned was a Pennsylvania German child’s plate with simpleslip decoration. From that modest beginning and over a period of more than thirty years, Esmerian has assembled an impressive collection of American folk art, rivaling in quality and scope the seminalcollections that were formed earlier in the century.Pottery became a springboard for a deeper investigation into Germanic material culture in America, notably through decorative arts from culturally specific regions,such as the Mahantango or Schwaben Creek Valley in Pennsylvania, and a significant group of painted furniture by the Virginia artist Jacob Strickler (1770–1842).Among the collection’s many strengths are its works on paper. Watercolor portraits by German immigrant artist Jacob Maentel (1778–?) were among Esmerian’searliest purchases in this medium, and added an immediacy and context to the pottery and other Pennsylvania German decorative arts. These opened the door to aninterest in the richly colored, handwritten, and decorated documents known as fraktur. Esmerian has assembled superb examples by individual artists as well as rareworks from particular Pennsylvania German groups or sects, including decorated hymnals from the Ephrata Cloister.In 1979, Esmerian launched a comparable collection of New England material with the addition of watercolor portraits by Joseph H.Davis (active 1832–1837),followed by numbers of watercolors by Samuel Addison Shute (1803–1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803–1882), a husband and wife team who worked together to portray numerous men, women, and children, many of whom were workers in the local textile mills in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The New England collectionnow includes boxes, furniture, paintings, portraits, and textiles. In 1980, Esmerian introduced the first sculpture into his collection: a weathervane in the form of theStatue of Liberty. Several rare, carved wooden weathervane patterns by Henry Leach (1809–1885) augment the weathervanes, and the collection also boasts suchicons as
included in the
Index of American Design,
and a life-size
made in New York by David Goldsmith (1901–1980).Today the Esmerian collection is defined not by a single theme but by its aesthetic consistency and personal focus. It encompasses painted furniture, decorative arts, portraits, landscape painting, books, scrimshaw, Shaker gift drawings, textiles, schoolgirl watercolors, and myriad other forms. In his collecting, Ralph Esmerian has been both a connoisseur and a humanist. He is concerned with rarity and quality but has also sought answers to questions about the es sence of American identity, asrevealed through the touch of the human hand in American folk art.
American Folk Art Museum; Boxes; Joseph H.Davis; Fraktur; Furniture, Painted and Decorated; Edward Hicks; Henry Leach; JacobMaentel; Painting, American Folk; Painting, Landscape; Pennsylvania German Folk Art;
Ammi Phillips; Redware; Religious Folk Art; Sculpture, Folk;Scrimshaw; Shaker Drawings; Ruth Whittier Shute; Samuel Addison Shute; Jacob Strickler; Weathervanes
Ellis, Estelle, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes.
At Home with Art: How Art Lovers Live with and Care for Their Treasures.
New York, 1999.Hollander, Stacy C.
American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum.
New York, 2001.Schaffner, Cynthia Van Allen, and Susan Klein. “Living with Antiques: Pennsylvania-German Folk Art in a City Apartment.”
The Magazine Antiques,
vol. 72, no. 3(September 1982): 510–515