Edward B. Firn (1909-1966)

County Fair

1935*

Tempera and oil on masonite panel, 24 x 30 inches. Signed and dated lower right: "edward firn -35-"

Exhibitions:

"New Group" exhibition, Cincinnati Museum of Art, November, 1935; Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015; Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City, Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, PA, October 29, 2016 to January 22, 2017; Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, February 12, 2017 to May 7, 2017; "Pop-up" exhibition, University of Arizona Museum of Art, December 2, 2018.

Reproduced:

"The Week in Art Circles," Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1935; Cincinnati Post (undated clipping in files of the Cincinnati Art Museum showing artist posing with his painting, probably November, 1935, reproduced in Fig. 2 below); Hittner, Arthur D., "Art of the Thirties: Rediscovered Masters of the American Scene," Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn/Winter, 2009, p. 170; Enduring America (catalogue); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 91; Burdan, Amanda C., et al., Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City (Skira Rizzoli, 2016), p. 43 (plate 9).

References:

Newspaper articles, exhibition checklists, WPA and other related correspondence in Firn (Fern) artist file at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Provenance:

Acquired from Zaplin Lampert Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, October 27, 2001.

Notes:

Mounted on strainer inscribed “COUNTY FAIR by Edward Firn $250.00.” Label on rear of panel identifies pigments used, artist, place of execution (“Cinci”) and date of work (appears to read “10/33” but may be "10/35"). Original 2 ½-inch wood frame.

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Fig. 1 - Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution, 1932.  Cincinnati Art Museum.

The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial.

 © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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Fig. 2 - Photograph of the artist posing in front of County Fair during its exhibition with the "New Group" at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1935. (Cincinnati Post, undated clipping (probably November, 1935) from files of the Cincinnati Art Museum).

     Ohio native Edward B. Firn (he used the variant spelling "Fern" more often later in his career) was a fixture in the Cincinnati arts community from the Depression until his death in 1966. He attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati and exhibited frequently at the Cincinnati Art Museum as a member of the so-called “New Group” of young artists who came to prominence in the greater Cincinnati region during the early Thirties. Firn won a Fleischmann scholarship which allowed him the freedom to paint wherever he chose for a six-month period; although he could have spent the six months abroad, he chose instead to "paint and understand the land to which he is indigenous."** As the Depression deepened, Firn obtained employment producing easel paintings for the W.P.A.’s Federal Art Project in Cincinnati (at a stipend of $103.40 per month) and murals for the Treasury Relief Art Project in neighboring Kentucky. Among the latter was his 1942 mural for the Pineville, Kentucky post office entitled Kentucky Mountain Mail en Route.

     Firn’s early subjects were the landscape and people of the Kentucky hills. Firn "likes to paint the people of the mountains . . . because they live close to the heart of nature. They are simple in their desires and in their whole lives, [the artist says], and they are sincere."*** These were the people who inspired County Fair, a Regionalist tour de force whose subjects are strongly reminiscent of the farmers’ wives portrayed by Grant Wood in popular paintings and prints produced during the same period. When it was exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1935 (along with Quietude, a peaceful Kentucky landscape now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum), the Cincinnati Post praised County Fair as “bright and firm in color, intriguing in subject, and dramatic in portrayal.” **** (A newspaper photograph of the artist standing beside County Fair at the 1935 "New Group" exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum appears in Fig. 2, below.) The Cincinnati Enquirer termed it "a spicy bit of American life and humor . . . culled from a summer spent in the heart of the Kentucky mountains," adding:

The character delineation is excellent, but in style it is a bit Grant Woodish, and like Grant Wood, the main figures—the women of the pickle jars—are painted with stereoscopic realism. They stand out definitely in the florid decorative scheme.*****

 

     Firn’s debt to his older fellow Midwesterner, Grant Wood (1891-1942), is revealed by comparison of County Fair to Wood’s well-known Daughters of Revolution (Fig. 2), painted in 1932. Similarities abound.  Both works employ a stern cast of mostly elderly women, the teacup-toting, giraffe-necked matriarch in Wood’s composition almost perfectly mimicked by the curiously elongated figure in the center of Firn’s canvas. Where a framed reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware infuses Daughters with an almost oppressive patriotism, Firn employs a palate of red, white and blue and a frieze of American quilts to impart a similar theme in a more temperate manner.  But where Daughters reeks of sarcasm, its back-country counterpart is without rancor. One wonders whether the extra figure in County Fair (the younger woman in the background) might be an avatar for the artist himself.******

 

     Later in his career, Firn was in considerable demand as a portraitist. Among his subjects was fellow Cincinnatian and United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

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* The dating on the front and verso of the work is indistinct. While the date on the label affixed to the rear of the canvas appears to read "10/33", the fact that the work was exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum in November of 1935 along with the artist's Quietude, recorded by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as having been executed in 1935, and the likelihood that the artist would have chosen to locally exhibit a more recent work suggests that the 1935 date is the more probable.

** Freeman, Norine, "Painters Firn and Murphy" (Cincinnati Post, undated clipping (probably November, 1935) from files of the Cincinnati Museum of Art).

*** Freeman, Norine, "Modern Cincinnati Artists: Edward Fern Paints What He Wants, Exactly as It Impresses Him" (undated clipping, probably from Cincinnati Post, from files of the Cincinnati Museum of Art).

**** Freeman, "Painters Firn and Murphy", ibid.

***** "The Week in Art Circles," Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1935.

****** The foregoing analysis is based, in part, on the observations of George V. Speer in his catalogue entry for County Fair in Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner (Northern Arizona University, 2015). 

     It was during a gallery crawl down Canyon Road in Santa Fe in the spring of 2001 that we wandered into Zaplin Lampert Gallery, a well-respected repository of predominantly Western art.  Shuffling into one of the gallery’s back rooms, I was dumbfounded by the discovery of a Midwestern Regionalist painting hanging incongruously in the company of cowboys, Indians and traditional western landscapes.  At a country fair, a giraffe-necked matron watches expectantly as a bevy of stony-faced judges ponders the merits of a selection of jams, pickles and peppers spread across the foreground while colorful quilts hang from the wall behind.  There was a strong whiff of Grant Wood in this marvelous painting, both in the treatment of the backcountry ladies and the wry humor pervading the work.  

 

     What was Edward Firn’s County Fair doing in a Western art gallery?  Apparently, the painting was included in the dealer’s purchase of a larger group of works, the rest most probably Western subjects more in line with the gallery’s specialty. Figuring I’d found a gem in a most unlikely place, I inquired as to the price.  The response was disheartening.  Way too high, I felt, particularly for the work of an obscure artist.  Promising to “think about it,” we left, armed with a brief file containing, among other references, a photocopy of a 1935 article from a Cincinnati newspaper discussing the show at the Cincinnati Art Museum in which County Fair had been first exhibited.  The article included the photo appearing in Fig. 2 above.

 

    County Fair haunted me.  I communicated with the gallery on several occasions over the subsequent months, hoping for a softening of their price requirements, to no avail. Finally, some six months after our Santa Fe junket, our persistence paid off: in October of 2001, the gallery yielded, agreeing to a price I could live with.  

 

     Over the succeeding years, County Fair (which had never been a favorite of my wife’s) hung in relative obscurity in one or another of our own back rooms.  We were therefore somewhat surprised when it was enthusiastically selected by Dr. Speer, Director of the NAU Art Museum, for inclusion in the 2015 show of our collection, and even more surprised when Amanda Burdan of the Brandywine Museum contacted us to request a loan of the picture for the groundbreaking exhibition on Rural Modernism at the Brandywine and High Museums in 2016 and 2017.  It was particularly gratifying to see a full-color plate of the painting in the coffee table-sized exhibition catalogue published by Rizzoli.  The twenty-six-year-old artist in that wonderful photograph would have been beaming.

Recollections