The Shipcarvers’ Art: Wooden Sculpture in 19th Century America

Ralph Sessions, DC Moore Gallery

Tuesday, June 9, 2009Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Countless numbers of human figures were carved in wood in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most served as ship figureheads or shop signs, but they were also used for architectural sculpture, garden statuary and commemorative figures for important civic ceremonies. The vast majority of these figures were made by shipcarvers, a tightly knit group of professional carvers bound by family ties and master-apprentice relationships who operated through a network of workshops in port cities and towns along the East Coast and, to a lesser extent, the Great Lakes. They created figureheads and other maritime carvings, architectural, church work and, by mid-19th century, circus wagon figures.

These artisans also carved life-size shop figures, patterned after ships’ figureheads, that advertised a wide variety of goods and services long before telephone directories and webpages. The carvers themselves coined the phrase the “image business” to characterize the wide range of figures that populated the streets—-and imaginations—-of urban and small-town America in the 18th and 19th centuries. A journalist noted in 1886 that “few objects, policemen and lamp-posts excepted, are more familiar to the public than the cigar store wooden Indian.” Less common images ranged from George Washington to Buffalo Bill to John L. Sullivan. After about 1860, characters that caught the public’s imagination were skillfully personified, from the more traditional Turks, Scotsmen and sailors to up-to-date baseball players, fashionable ladies and caricatures of race track touts or “dudes.” The success of the age of advertising, ushered in to some extent by show figures, eventually supplanted the use of carved figures as the mass media developed.

Dr. Sessions’ talk considers the development of wooden sculpture from the mid-18th to the end of the 19th centuries, with a primary focus on New York City, the most important shipbuilding center in the country from about 1820 until after the Civil War. New York was the site of many of the most innovative developments in the production and marketing of wooden figures at a time when they evolved from traditional craft to Victorian fad.

Stylistic development followed trends in the fine arts, from 18th-century baroque through neoclassicism to 19th-century romanticism and realism. Figureheads and shop figures, as products of a shared cultural and artistic imagination, speak volumes about several important aspects of American social history, including racial and gender stereotyping, and the emergence of a national popular culture. These figures embody traditional values and simultaneously reflect the attitudes, prejudices and trends of a rapidly developing society.

Ralph Sessions’ education reflects the range of expertise he brings to his research, a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in art history from the City University of New York. Ralph Sessions is Director of Special Projects for the DC Moore Gallery in New York. Dr. Sessions previously served as the chief curator of the Museum of American Folk Art, director of the Abigail Adams Smith Museum in New York City and director of the Historical Society of Rockland County, New York, where he wrote “The Movies in Rockland County: Adolf Zukor and the Silent Era” (1982) about early movie-making in Rockland County (where the president of Paramount Pictures had a country home from 1918 until the late 1930s).

Dr. Sessions’ other publications include “The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar Store Figures in Nineteenth-Century America” (2005); the sculpture catalogue for “American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum” (2001) by Stacey Hollander et al.; and the catalogue for “Spiritually Moving: A Collection of American Folk Sculpture” (1998) by Tom Geismar and Harvey Kahn. Dr. Sessions last spoke to the Forum in April, 1996 on “The Carver’s Art: Nineteenth Century American Folk Sculpture.”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Share your folk art objects and images. Nautical themes, scrimshaw and bone objects, and images of Indians, Scotsmen, Turks, fashionable ladies, baseball players and “dudes” are especially welcome.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.