Early Works on Paper
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  • Jacob Strickler (1770–1842)
  • Shenandoah County, Virginia
  • 1803
  • Watercolor and ink on paper
  • 6 3/16 x 8 1/4 in.
  • American Folk Art Museum, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.30
  • Jacob Strickler was born on November 24, 1770, in what was referred to at that time as the Massanutten region of Shenandoah County, Virginia. The first Stricklers to immigrate to this country in the eighteenth century were Swiss Mennonites; Strickler was a descendant of one of the fifty-one Swiss and German pioneers from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who had migrated to the Massanutten area by 1733. In his early life, Strickler lived in close proximity to two Mennonite meeting places, and, while it is not documented that he belonged to either group, one can deduce from the papers and books in his preserved library, together with a rich body of fraktur writings and drawings, that he was probably by profession a Mennonite preacher or parochial-school leader.

    Inscriptions in the books in Strickler’s library and in the margins of his copies of a locally printed German-language weekly provide ample evidence of his writing styles. The earliest recorded dated fraktur by Strickler (1787) was done when he was 16 years old and demonstrates that he was an accomplished penman by that time and certainly capable of instructing others. We know that he was teaching penmanship by 1801 through the survival of a Vorschrift, or writing sampler, inscribed “For Jacob Strickler Living in Shenandoah County” in English in an unknown hand.

    Strickler’s known body of fraktur ranges in date from 1787 to after 1815 and includes an elaborate gardenlike 1794 Zierschrift, or decorative writing, as well as an important group of nine fraktur writings and drawings that were found stored in a Strickler family Bible. This group comprised every variety of fraktur, from unfinished patterns to decorative birth records and writing exercises to complex allegorical religious subjects. They offer ample evidence of the evolution of Strickler’s personal style and distinctive visual vocabulary and hint at his source material, such as printed and drawn fraktur created by more prolific and influential contemporary Pennsylvania fraktur artists.

    Certainly the most remarkable and most direct communication with another artist, however, took place right at home, with neighbor Johannes Spitler, the Shenandoah County decorator of painted chests and clocks. The clock that Spitler customized for Strickler (in the museum’s collection) is a rare documented example of how folk artists within a tight-knit cultural community can influence one another. Strickler died on June 24, 1842, and is buried in a small family cemetery on a hill behind the house in which he lived, and where his clock and most of his known fraktur remained until the late 1970s.

    While modest compared with Strickler’s elaborate 1794 zierschrift, this small fraktur drawing, with its blank inscription panel, incorporates the signature elements and motifs of the artist’s drawing vocabulary. These elements include the distinctive blossom repeated here twice, one characteristically growing from an upside-down heart, and the zigzag diamond borders at the very top and bottom. More important, this small specimen, which descended in Strickler’s family together with the 1801 tall case clock decorated for him by Johannes Spitler, is additional evidence of the artistic communication between these two men. In fact, the atypical notion of inverting hearts, which occurs more often than not in Spitler’s layouts, appears to originate with Strickler’s fraktur. All the elements mentioned above appear with slight variation on one side, at least, of the tall case clock. Since the clock predates this drawing, and since it draws even more striking parallels with additional elements (including an elaborate script signature) found in the 1794 example, one must assume that Spitler used that zierschrift—or a lost but equally complex fraktur—as the actual source of inspiration for the clock.
  • Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor, New York