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Coney Island and Bushnell Park's Carousel Artistry

Feb 13, 2015

The Wadsworth Atheneum is linking art at the museum with art in use at the carousel.

The Wadsworth Atheneum's "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008" exhibits a multitude of objects -- paintings, statues, films, music, drawings, photographs, comic strips -- all of which are inspired by Coney Island, an American landmark which has captivated the mind of the public consciousness for over a century. 

One of the highlights of the exhibit are the collection of antique carousel horses which have been preserved from the park's golden days at the the turn of the century. 

The head curator at the Athenuem and curator of "Coney Island," Robin Jaffee Frank refers to the extensive collection as her "baby." After a tour of the exhibit, Jaffee Frank left little doubt that the carousel figures are a crowd-pleaser for both museum-goers and the curator herself. Listen to her describe the figures below:

Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by a quirky, smiling camel.

The camel was carved by Charles I. D. Looff, a Danish master carver, who created dozens of carousel animals for American parks in the early 20th century.

The exotic creature bears "Oriental" paraphernalia, which would have intrigued American vacationers. However, the creature would not have been completely foreign, as the back of its saddle becomes the head of an American eagle, curving into a familiar steely beak. 

Jaffee Frank believes that this was a symbol for the artist. The iconic American bird is a symbol for both the carver and the rider, silently contributing to the notion that Coney Island was a touchstone for the American experience.

With his proud head and ornate saddle Charles Carmel's horse comes to life with a real horse hair tale.
Credit Charles Carmel, Carousel Horse with Raised Head, c. 1914 Paint on wood, jewels, glass eyes, horsehair tail, Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.

The Wadsworth exhibit also features two other carousel horses carved by fellow Eastern Europeans and disciples of Looff. 

One horse, deep brown in color and carved in 1914 by Charles Carmel, has raised his head and hoof in a burst of energy and power. His pink nostrils and large teeth not only give the creature a life-like appearance, but also give him a true sense of individuality and character. Like his camel compatriot, his accouterment is important.

A saddle is on the horses's back complete with a gun holster and pistol. As Jaffee Frank noted excitedly, "Possibly a Colt!"  

The horse's bridle features multi-colored American Indian feathers. If the camel symbolizes the Orient, this horse symbolizes the legend of the American West.

Coney Island thus becomes a cultural mediator, where "immigrants could get a visual lesson in America's history," Jaffee Frank said.

The Stein and Goldstein "Armoured Horse" brought the fairy-tale, fantasy of a knight on a white horse into reality for Coney Islander vacationers.
Credit Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, Armoured Horse, c. 1912-17, Paint on wood with glass eyes, leather bridle, and horsehair tail, Collection American Folk Art Museum/Mallory Odonoghue

Reginald Marsh and his young, blonde wife chase fellow riders at Coney Island.
Credit Reginald Marsh, "Wooden Horses," 1936 Tempera on board, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Next to the lively steed of the frontier is a medieval destrier. His armored head is bent down obediently, as if he is awaiting his master: a brave knight or a lovely damsel. The jouster was created by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, the master carvers who carved the carousel horses found in Bushnell Park in 1914.

A painting hung close to the animals, Reginald Marsh's "Wooden Horses" captures the excitement of Coney Island, as carousel riders as race to the "finish." Unlike the fairground rides of today, carousels of the early 20th century moved riders individually, at speeds of up to 25 mph, in order to give riders the feel of an actual derby race.

Jaffee Frank said the Wadsworth Atheneum is "creating a link between a great work of art in the museum and a great work of art that comes to life for our residents here in Hartford."

 "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008"  is on exhibit through May 31. For more information, go to thewadsworth.org.

Mallory ODonoghue is an intern at WNPR. Ray Hardman contributed to this story.