The couple’s collection is a treasure trove of 18th- and 19th-century American cultural heritage that resonates with modern sensibilities
Vibrant colour is among the chief characteristics of the American folk art, furniture and household objects collected by Peter and Barbara Goodman since the 1950s. It is evident in a work by the 19th-century New England portrait painter Ammi Phillips, Woman with Pink Ribbons (c.1833), which headlines the sale of their collection at Christie’s New York on 20 January.
The work is also emblematic of the couple’s eye for quality. ‘They looked for the best of the best,’ says Christie’s folk art specialist Martha Willoughby, who has been researching the collection. The Phillips portrait, she adds, is a ‘supreme example’ of work by the artist, whose best-known painting Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1830-1835, is a highlight of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
In Woman with Pink Ribbons, the unknown sitter’s green balloon sleeves and neckline and the glimpse of a sofa rail behind her create a striking horizontal emphasis. Unlike the subjects of many other Phillips portraits, she sits forward in the frame, heightening the picture’s drama. The dress also allows the artist to explore expansive panes of colour. The American Folk Art Museum’s 2008 exhibition, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red, underscored similarities between this portrait and the 20th-century abstractions of Rothko, finding both artists treated colour within the picture frame ‘as a complex language of its own’.
A watercolour portrait of unknown date, Woman with Two Canaries by Samuel Addison Shute, is possibly unique for the artist. Active in the 1820s and 1830s, Shute often worked with his wife, Ruth, who would draw their subjects, usually facing straight on, and shade their faces heavily before he applied the paint.
This picture is believed to have been made by Samuel alone, since it is in three-quarter profile and unshaded. Unknown to the market before it came to auction in 1977, the Goodmans bought the painting from the Massachusetts dealer Stephen Score in 1985.
A jewel-coloured sunset, View of Nahant (Sunset), is the only work in the collection by Thomas G. Chambers. He is best-known for his maritime and landscape views, and this painting is the largest and most dynamic of five works in a series.
Polychromy and quality are also evident in many pieces of furniture and household objects in the Goodman Collection, such as a painted Federal blanket chest made in Pennsylvania in around 1815-25. In fact, the sophisticated colour play and linework seen on these early American pieces resonates with the bold use of colour and appreciation of tactility embraced by modern artists, such as Andy Warhol and Elie Nadelman, who both collected and appreciated American Folk Art for these qualities.
As an artisan and a painter respectively, Peter and Barbara Goodman recognised the importance of surface. Peter, who died aged 95 in January 2021, was a successful businessman who became a skilled woodworker, while Barbara, who died in 2015, was a professional artist. Besides collecting, Peter built reproductions of antique American furniture and made frames for their paintings.
In addition to a home in New York state the Goodmans bought an 18th-century house in Chicopee, Massachusetts, dismantled it and moved it some 60 miles west to Mill River. Peter restored the intricate wood panelling in its dining room by hand. ‘He definitely had an appreciation from a maker’s point of view,’ says Willoughby.
The couple also kept meticulous documentation, including a detailed ledger recording each new acquisition, with corresponding numbered stickers attached to each item — ‘a researcher’s dream,’ Willoughby says.
Peter’s files note the condition and quality of each piece, and any repairs or restorations, and in these comments, his personality shines through. One black-painted maple Windsor side chair is marked: ‘A Beauty!’ Willoughby’s favourite note describes that he paid over the odds for one item but was still very pleased with it. ‘You can tell he really took enjoyment in collecting,’ she says.
He also thoroughly researched his acquisitions, for example, corresponding with the last family owner of John Brewster Jr’s portrait The Dow Twins: Josiah Coffin and Richard Weare from 1810. When he attempted to find the earliest owner of Phillips’s Woman with Pink Ribbons he came closer than anyone, tracking it back to a Minneapolis antiques dealer. ‘I joke with his children about it,’ Willoughby says. ‘He did an amazing job given he wasn’t using the internet.’