John Rasmussen (Pennsylvania, Germany, 1828-1895)
View of the Buildings & Surroundings of the Berks County Almshouse., c. 1880. Unsigned, titled in inscriptions below. Oil and gold paint on zinc panel, 32 1/4 x 40 in., in a period molded wood frame with gilt liner. Condition: Scattered retouch and gilt loss.
Literature: See The Americana Collection of Richard and Rosemarie Machmer, Pook & Pook Inc., October 25, 2008, Lot 437, which sold a similar painting of the Berks County almshouse by Rasmussen.
Exhibitions: Where Liberty Dwells: 19th-Century Art by the American People, Works of Art in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Tillou, traveling exhibition February 22, 1976 to May 29, 1977, the painting illustrated on plate 80 in the exhibition catalog; American Folk Painting, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January 14th to February 20th, 1977, with exhibition label on the back of the frame.
Note: This elaborately detailed painting depicts a large central oval reserve with a bird's-eye view of the buildings, grounds, and surrounding hilly rural landscape of the almshouse, with figures engaged in the activities of the community, surrounded by six smaller vignettes, identified in inscriptions, counter-clockwise beginning from the upper left corner: "Western view of the new Hospital," "Grain Barn," "Tenant house No. 1," "Kitchen-suplying [sic]-Spring & Reservoir," "Tenant house No. III & Cemetery," and "Tenant house No. II." The names of the directors and staff are inscribed within a gilt wreath at upper center.
John Rasmussen painted the Berks County almshouse while he was a resident there, arriving there at the age of 51 in 1879, until his death in 1895. He was one of three impoverished German-born folk artists, also including Charles C. Hoffman and Louis Mader (nicknamed "the almshouse painters"),that painted similar colorful and elaborately detailed pictures of the compound while living there.
The almshouse was built in 1825 after a law was passed by the Pennsylvania state legislature to establish a home for the poor in each of the counties. The Berks County almshouse was built on a large plantation in Shillington, Cumru Township, once owned by Governor Thomas Mifflin. The main facilities included a hospital, sanitarium, old-age home, and a prison. The self-supporting operation employed the residents in farming, tending livestock, building and grounds upkeep, and in operating the carpentry shop, a pump house, smokehouse, bakery, creamery, icehouse, and firehouse within the community.
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