Elie Nadelman


Nadelman a Polish-born sculptor, was interested in classical forms and was also a pioneer collector of folk art. In 1926 he and his wife, Viola Flannery, established the first folk art museum in America: the Museum of Folk and Peasant Art (later the Museum of Folk Arts) at Alderbrook, their nine-teenth-century villa in Riverdale, New York. Nadelman lent objects from its collection to (among others) the Newark Museum, which used folk objects in its watershed exhibitions of 1930 and 1931. Nadelman had emigrated to America (New York City) in 1914; for the next twenty years, according to his son, they collected some 70,000 European andAmerican objects. They seem to have been inspired by the Bavarian national museum of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by Viola Flannery’s interest in antiquetextiles, and by the furnishings of a house they rented from the interior designer Henry Sleeper. Their museum collection spanned the thirteenth through nineteenthcenturies and included paintings, fraktur, toys, dolls, quilts, samplers, rugs, dress, furniture, farm implements, boxes, weather-vanes, chalkware, wagons, and householdobjects. Nadelman’s own sculpture is representational but pared down and abstracted—a tendency consonant with folk idioms. His interest in theater, vaudeville, and thecircus inspired him to create popular forms. Tango (c. 1918), The Orchestra Conductor (c. 1919), Seated Woman (c. 1917), Woman at the Piano (c. 1917), and Host
(c. 1917)
are all in wood; some are painted. Kirstein noted that Nadelman’s techniques—carving in wood and then softening the effect by applying gesso tosimulate flesh and clothing, and combining many pieces of wood joined with glue before carving—are similar to those of folk sculptors. Especially in his later years, Nadelman, like many vernacular artists, used everyday materials: plaster, papier-mâché, terracotta, and basic wood.During World War II, Nadelman worked as an air warden and as a volunteer in occupational therapy at the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital, where he provided materialsfor and expertise in sculpture and ceramics.The Nadelmans lost their fortune when the stock market crashed in 1929, but their museum was helped by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and by theformation of an advisory board that included the curator Holger Cahill. The museum, with the Index of American Design, sponsored by the Works ProjectAdministration, a federal agency, employed artists to draw, paint, and photograph folk objects. Ultimately, though, the Nadelmans sold the bulk of their collection tothe New-York Historical Society. Some individual objects went to private collectors and other institutions.