Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art

May 5 – September 15, 2013
Front cover of Massachusetts Masterpieces
Cover image: Black-bellied Plover by Melvin G. Lawrence (1870-1932)

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"Wood Duck Drake", Tyzzer Rig, unknown carver
Wood Duck Drake, Tyzzer Rig, unknown carver

No other region engendered such aesthetic quality and diverse styles of decoy carving as Massachusetts. For this exhibition, consulting curator Gigi Hopkins will select the best of the best, bringing together an unrivaled group of carvings that reveal the sculptural skill of Massachusetts’ master carvers. Hopkins is a renowned conservator who has worked closely with decoys for nearly five decades, analyzing and reproducing subtle details of form, texture, and color. For this exhibition, she took on the role of curator, selecting decoys from some of the finest folk art and sporting art collections in the country. She says, “Every bird here stopped my heart when I first saw it. It has been an intense joy to bring these treasures together—and even nicer, to bring them back to their home state.”

Massachusetts makers made many of the decoys most prized by collectors. Of the highest decoy auction prices realized, nine of the top ten were for Massachusetts decoys. As a decoy-making region, Massachusetts is unique in that its carvers did not develop a particular style. Each Yankee craftsman came to the task with his own eye, voice, and ingenuity. Exhibition visitors will view a never-before-exhibited rig of five elegant Yellowlegs, each in its own pose. Hopkins attributes these to Frederick Nichols of Lynn. Just a few miles away in Revere, Melvin Lawrence made birds that couldn’t be more different. His beguiling Sleeping Plover, a highlight of the exhibition, was cleverly designed to be both beautiful and indestructible.

Important works by famed decoy makers Elmer Crowell, Lothrop Holmes, Joseph Lincoln, and the Folger Family, among other noted carvers, are included in the exhibition. Another highlight will be the oil painting, The Coot Shooter, by the prominent American Impressionist artist, Frank W. Benson. This is the first time the painting has been publicly exhibited since it was created a century ago. 

Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art was made possible through loans from 15 private collectors across the country, and from Historic New England. It will be on view through September 15.