Those of us with both an artistic and a historic bent tend to high-mindedly consider portraiture as the earliest type of American painting. In fact, it's not. In the 1640s, Connecticut and other colonies passed legislation demanding that every community have licensed "public accommodations" or inns for weary travellers to rest their heads. A problem arose however when those weary travellers rode into town and tried to find such accommodations. The biggest house in town would look to be the most likely candidate but often was not the local inn. Before long, these inns were required to also put up signs, some painted by the owners, others by locals with a steady hand and a sharp eye, and others by itinerant artists providing the service. these were the earliest American artists, long before anyone in the colonies could afford even the simplest portraits.
What would you think, riding into an early colonial town, seeing a sign hanging before a roadside inn that read: "Entertainment for Man and Hors"? It might help to know that "entertainment" back then referred to meals and lodging, and the word "Hors" was an obvious misspelling The work was that of itinerant artist, Bill Rice, and is the earliest, un-repainted colonial era sign to survive. It's been dated from 1749. You won't find his paintings in the National Gallery of Art, or even the Smithsonian. You'd have to travel to Hartford, to the museum of the Connecticut Historical Society, which has the largest collection of sign art in the world.
Of the thousands of signs from the colonial era, only about one hundred survive. And as interesting, insightful, and enlightening as they might be to daily life during that era, they are a nightmare for curators. First, the different wood panels, especially having been out in the weather for a good part of their working life, presents all sorts of varying preservation problems. Second, paints used during that period would, today, hardly be worthy of the name. They faded, often at different rates, depending upon the colour, chipped, pealed, and as a result, were subject to frequent repainting, by other artists or the artistically inept owners themselves; often using totally different messages, even for totally different purposes. Thus, images from several different eras compete with one another, forcing curators to make agonising judgement calls as to which layer is most important. And sometimes the most artistically important layer is not the most historically important. In effect, to preserve one layer, they're often forced to destroy sign art from other times.
Those of us who watched the recent presidential debates might recall the beautiful American eagle adornment hung as a backdrop centrepiece for the occasion. The original design for this sculptural piece dates back almost two hundred years to 1807 and a sign which hung over the door to Ely's Inn in East Windsor, Connecticut. The sign was repainted in 1824 and again in the 1830s, eventually ending up outside the Village Hotel. It wasn't until recent years, when later layers of paint were stripped away, that the signature of Bill Rice was found. Rice is considered not only the best sign painter of the time but seems also to have been the most prolific. A show of his work, and others, entitled, "Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from the Connecticut Historical Society" will run in Hartford through April, 2001, whereupon it travels to museums at Stonybrook on Long Island, the Museum of Our national Heritage in Lexington, Mass., and then to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia in November 2003.