April 19, 2021
By Mike Burns
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In the fall of 2004, a cupboard decorated by Johannes Spitler sold at auction for $962,000 that astonished the collecting world. Astonishing is certainly an apt word to describe the sale of this item. However, it wasn’t the hefty price tag that caught the attention and bewilderment of enthusiasts, but rather the seemingly unfamiliar name attached to the piece. Why would anyone pay that much money for a cupboard; especially considering its age and condition?
Johannes Spitler is not the most famous artist that ever lived, but his works, style, and meticulous records have made him one of the most influential American folk artists of the past 200 years. His unique style is often attributed to the geographic and social isolation of the community where he lived, rural Pennsylvania. Known as a fraktur artist, his works are heavily influenced by Pennsylvanian Dutch elements involving nature such as birds, hearts, and tulips along with distinctive typography that the style is named after.
Ironically, despite his diligent methods, not very much is actually known about the man himself. However, much can be extrapolated about him from some of the common themes that are present on nearly every single one of his works. His comprehensive procedures and records can also aid in learning more about this mysterious yet incredibly gifted artist.
Spitler’s works are significant for a number of reasons including their authenticity, subject, age, and uniqueness. Several pieces of his have been exhibited in national museums including the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of the Shenandoah, and even at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. With national fame and worldwide praise, it is no wonder that even some items at Rock Island Auction Company have felt the impact of this artist’s influence. In spite of being separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, a rifle influenced by the works of Johannes Spitler, known as the “Running Deer” Kentucky Rifle, can be found in the upcoming May Premier Auction at RIAC, and it is gorgeous.
Has art always been individualistic, or is it a community that creates an artist? While artistic movements go in and out of style over decades, some aspects of design are steadfast and reflective of the art’s evolution. Nevertheless, a distinct difference can be drawn between movements, individual artists, and the fluid community in which they interact. Arguments can be made for which is the more valued art form, preserving heritage or pioneering the unexplored, but what is undeniable is that each elicits an emotional response that connects you with an artist or group.
Folk art was a term coined during the early 20thcentury to distinguish the ever-growing differences between works of more rural craftsmen whose creativity is reflective of their culture and community and more sophisticated masters fitting an individual or idiosyncratic artistic identity. It is because these two separate forms of expression are equally beautiful and interesting to examine that the term “folk art” was created as a definitive genre.
While it can be contended that folk art has always existed (take the cave paintings in Lascaux, France for example), its rise in popularity and recognition during the 20th century can be explained by increases of industry, economic challenges, and demographic shifts experienced at the time. As suburbs and the prospect of moving away from densely populated cities became more attractive to many middle class families, new environments, challenges, and emotions began to blossom, and so too did the artistic inspirations that accompanied them. Departing from the familiar city landscapes of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, alien scenery confronted many with unique works rooted in more traditional aspects of Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic culture, entirely disconnected from the architecture and sights of metropolitan areas.
Contrasted to the refined, almost machine-like, craftsmanship of master artists, collectors began to recognize that this more “homegrown” artistic expression, devoid of academic influence, was a reflection of the melting pot that the country, as a whole, represents. Tables and chairs featuring extensive and intricate rococo carvings and distinctive typography have defined the folk art movement and cemented it as a staple of the American experience.
What is more reflective of the spirit of the United States than beautiful works of art created by average people yearning for a creative outlet? Decades later, American folk art has expanded well outside the realm of carved wood and painted canvases. Music, architecture, and even language have all been influenced by the efforts and experiments by ordinary people looking to represent their communities, families, and heritage in an expressive manner. If not for American folk artists like Grandma Moses, Jacob Strickler, Johannes Spitler, and many, many more, activities like line dancing and bluegrass music might not be as prevalent or popular in American culture as they currently are.
As mentioned earlier, Johannes Spitler was an American folk artist of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Born in the community of Massanutten, Virginia, not much else is known about the life of this incredibly influential artist beyond his own published work notes. His unique style, as discussed above, can be attributed to the isolated community in the Shenandoah Valley where he grew up and learned the tools of his trade. Segmented from other urban areas having access to larger pools of individual artists and influences, Spitler’s work was consistent and reflective of the Pennsylvania Dutch and Germanic traditions that had been established there for decades.
Working throughout the 1790’s until around 1810, Spitler produced over twenty different units of decorated furniture, making his portfolio on of the most concise and consistent executions of fraktur style on record. Known to produce mostly full-sized blanket and smaller storage chests, Spitler kept detailed records of the items he designed that he organized in consecutive order, although it is ultimately unknown if he actually built the furniture himself. These details expose approximately how many creations he is responsible for, and personalized signatures matching other known works of his also confirm these notes. While extremely helpful, his notes were intended to be used by himself, so various aspects of his recording system have yet to be explained or entirely understood.
Two tall clock cases have been attributed to him, although one is signed by contemporary fraktur artist, Jacob Strickler, a neighbor and relative of Spitler who received it as a gift. Littered with outlined motifs and typography distinctive of the style, the clocks adhere to the strict color palate Spitler used in all of his works: black, white, red, and blue. Iconic heavy brush strokes, thick paint, and relatively simple geometric designs create distinctive contrast of both color, subject, and utilization.
One design commonly associated with Spitler, the fraktur style he was involved in, and the Pennsylvania Dutch society that influenced him was the iconography of the running deer. Even though the image of the running deer, with its legs spread out in full stride, antlers pointing upward, and body almost entirely in the air, can be found on a plethora of other designs and items from the area and time, Spitler’s interpretation is, by far, the most famous example of its use. Judging from their appearance, exponential prevalence in the decades he worked, and its explosion in popularity following his death, it appears as if many other running deer designs were based on Spitler’s renditions. While not as famous as someone like Pablo Picasso or even a fellow folk artist like Frida Kahlo, Spitler’s influence on other artists as well as their choice of subject, color palate, and running deer design is undisputable.
This brings everything back around to the cupboard sold in 2004 for almost one million dollars because it its interesting inclusion of the running deer image. Kept in remarkably good condition, all things considered, this cupboard even included its authentic cornice with five of its original nine nails still intact. It closely resembles the furniture crafting of the tall clocks mentioned earlier that now reside at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City as well. On top of these details, this cupboard was also unknown to collectors until rather recently, making it extremely desirable. With such historical provenance, uniqueness, and lack of other available works of his on the market, it is no wonder this cupboard blew past its high estimate of $250,000 to reach almost one million dollars.
Clearly Johannes Spitler was an extremely important artist in the American folk art scene. Even Rock Island Auction Company is not immune to his influence with a rifle available during the May Premier Firearms Auction that features a running deer image likely inspired by the works of Spitler.
The "Running Deer Rifle" is documented in the included Vol. 3, No. 1 issue of "American Tradition: The Journal of the Contemporary Longrifle Association" in 2012 where it is noted as probably dating to the late-18th century, likely from Pennsylvania. The deer design is noted as closely resembling "folk art decoration on the door of an important Shenandoah Valley hanging cupboard by Johannes Spilter." Considering its age, location, and design, this is extremely probable.
Estimated at $75,000-$150,000 and winner of the best of show at the Kentucky Rifle Association in June 2006, this beautiful rifle remains in virtually "untouched attic-found" condition. The stock features nice molding along the ramrod channel and the entire rifle is littered with beautiful and elegant scroll work, carvings, and floral patterns. The brass furniture also includes gorgeous designs, including a heart and crescent moon piercing (common images associated with the fraktur style) on the patch box finial and a spire shaped toe plate.
The most distinctive feature, however, is the brass plate and wire inlaid running deer on the left side of the butt that gives this rifle its moniker. Almost identical to the designs of Spitler and numerous other fraktur artists of the Shenandoah, this running deer, with its legs spread in full stride, antlers pointing upwards, and body almost completely in the air, is the epitome of American folk art and it is very easy to see why it has received so much attention and accolade. Only increasing in value as its age increases and the genre expands, it is a very distinctive rifle with a fascinating folk art design. This is an exceptional example of why the American long rifle is considered by many to be as much an art form as an iconic early American frontier firearm.
Johannes Spitler is one of the most influential American folk artist because of his distinct style, lack of academic experience, and beautiful works. However, much of the life of this artist remains shrouded in mystery; partially because of the era he lived in but also because of the isolated community he was a part of. Ironically, Spitler documented his works in a specific manner that still baffles many historians, but kept his works in consecutive order. Because of this, Spitler’s works have become well documented and authenticated making them of immense desire to collectors.
As is shown with the Hamilton war pistols also found in this sale, items from the 18th century are hard to find in good condition. Do not miss this opportunity to own a small piece of American and American folk art history with this beautiful “Running Deer” Kentucky long rifle.
As always, if there are any questions about consignment, registration, and future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to come visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.
Artist, Ken Scott American Frontier. "Jacob Strickler Fraktur." Jacob Strickler Fraktur. January 01, 1970. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://americanfrontierart.blogspot.com/2013/10/just-completed-teaching-weekend.html.
"EXTREMELY IMPORTANT JOHANNES SPITLER (1774-1837) PAINT DECORATED YELLOW PINE HANGING CUPBOARD, SHENANDOAH (NOW PAGE) COUNTY, SHENANDOAH VALLEY OF VIRGINIA." Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. February 06, 2020. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://www.jeffreysevans.com/auction/extremely-important-johannes-spitler-1774-1837-paint-decorated-yellow-pine-hanging-cupboard-shenandoah-now-page-county-shenandoah-valley-of-virginia/.
"Johannes Spitler." Wikipedia. November 20, 2020. Accessed April 15, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Spitler.
United, Brooklyn. "Johannes Spitler - Self-Taught Genius." Self. Accessed April 15, 2021. http://selftaughtgenius.org/reads/johannes-spitler.
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