Should a large wooden rooster wearing a saddle and stirrups be considered in the same league as paintings by Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Mark Rothko? Visitors to the National Gallery may wonder as they traipse through a current show there that makes a radical departure from the gallery's traditional emphasis on recognized works from national and international sources.
The rideable rooster is actually an 1830s California barber chair for children, with a drawer in its breast feathers to hold the barber's tools. It stands ready to crow in the center of a saddled and bridled menagerie made by the Gustav A. Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and carved by Daniel Muller before 1903. The carousel animals are one of the highlights of the gallery's exhibition of folk art from the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vt., which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Among the 120 pieces of Americana from the Shelburne Museum are a 24-foot wooden circus broom, a 5-foot wooden tooth from an 1850 dentist's sign, and a 6-foot-tall coffee pot of sheet tin presented to J.H. Webb by his friends of the South Salem Whist Club in 1887.
The Shelburne Museum was founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb and her husband, J. Watson Webb, as she said, ``to show the craftsmanship and ingenuity of our forefathers.'' Exhibits range from weathervanes to quilts, hooked rugs to decoys, carved figures to the sort of cigar-store Indians she liked to collect.
Mrs. Webb's test for the folk art she collected was: ``It must possess beauty, a symmetry of line or movement, an aesthetically satisfying form, or a decoration which the maker had deliberately added to please himself and the eye of the beholder.''
Many of the objects in this show fit that definition, but many of them also would look equally at home at the National Museum of American History, where such exhibits have often appeared. They include a formidable-looking fire engine weathervane, complete with prancing horses in molded copper (1890), and a mermaid weathervane of wood (c. 1825-50) in which she holds a comb and mirror for her salty locks.