GROUP: The painted decoration on this chest is similar to that found on works signed by or attributed to decorator Johannes Spitler. These works include chests, a small hanging cupboard, and two tall-case clocks. Most of these examples have a blue ground over a red primer coat, symmetrical designs that were laid out with a compass and straight edge, heavy brush strokes, and white, red, blue, and black paint.
SOURCE: Most of the information in the following entry pertaining to Johannes Spitler and his paint-decorated objects was taken form Colonial Williamsburg’s curatorial entries for several of their Spitler pieces. See CW emuseum.
STYLE: Each of the three distinct styles in which Spitler painted is strongly linked to his Swiss- and German-American cultural heritage. For example, the use of colorful geometric squares, circles, diamonds, diagonal bands, and compass-drawn flowers is reminiscent of the ornament on German-American ceramics, quilts, woven coverlets, and decorated texts, or fraktur. Much of the furniture Spitler painted in this style is numbered and dated.
The second decorative style associated with Spitler differs considerably from his abstract geometric mode and instead features motifs drawn from nature. MESDA’s chest falls into this category. While painted in the same red, black, white, and blue color scheme, furniture in this style is covered with stylized birds, hearts, vines, crescent moons, and compass-drawn flowers. More than stock Germanic decorative motifs, these naturalistic elements reflect the traditional world view of German-American society. One of the principal tenets of this belief system was a perception of the physical and spiritual worlds as an integrated whole comprised of countless interrelated and mutually supporting ideas, a view in which all things real and divine reflected the hand of God and were part of an irrefutable universal order.
Spitler’s naturalistic motifs demonstrate this traditional devotion to family, farming, and God. Spitler lucidly depicted the themes of abundance, divine and romantic love, fecundity, and spiritual growth through the decorative elements he selected. Hearts represent the vessel from which life and plenty flow and epitomizes the benevolence of God’s love. Similar themes are expressed through paired birds like those centered on the front of this chest. They may also allude to the human soul. The blooming flowers bespeak the cycles of nature so important to an agrarian people and suggest the flowering and growth of the human spirit.
A generally unrecognized component of Spitler’s naturalistic designs is his use of anthropomorphic figures, an approach with precedent in German-American artistic traditions. Anthropomorphic attributes appear on MESDA’S chest. Conventional analysis assumes that designs at either end of the front panel on this chest are stylized versions of an abstract flower motif Spitler used on many objects. However, they might also be read as rather graphic allusions to female anatomy and sexuality. This interpretation is bolstered by frequent associations of female sexual anatomy with flowers in Western art and literature and the bawdy character of many Swiss- and German-American cultural expressions.
Some of the decorative motifs used by Spitler and other German-American artisans certainly had lost much of their original symbolic importance by the early nineteenth century. Even so, the designs continued to serve as effective visual symbols for a traditional people who were struggling to come to terms with Enlightenment rationalism. Moreover, the fact that decorative references to abundance, love, and regeneration are commonly found on German-American chests is all the more significant because chests, perhaps more than any furniture form, signify continuity. Built to last, chests were typically filled with prized possessions and then passed from one generation to the next, often at the time of a child’s marriage or a parent’s death. That identically decorated pieces of fraktur were often applied inside the lids of painted chests only further signals the survival of traditional German-American values.
The third decorative painting style associated with Spitler is also reflective of German-American cultural beliefs; specifically, it is intrinsically linked to the decorative tradition of fraktur. In the context of German-American folk art, the term fraktur suggests the fractured quality of the pictures and lettering on illuminated manuscripts.
PAINTING TECHNIQUE: Spitler created paint schemes that are striking for their brilliant coloration and sharply focused images. His technique was relatively consistent. The furniture was first primed with a coat of red lead paint over which the ornamental elements were laid on in lampblack, white lead, and more red lead. The final coating, a blue ground made from Prussian blue and white lead pigments, was painted around the decorative motifs. Spitler’s palette appears all the more powerful because of the thick impasto he imparted to his work through the use of heavily saturated brushes. The effect was further accentuated by his utilization of drafting implements. Guided by stencils, compasses, and templates, Spitler incised deep outlines around each decorative element. This technique allowed for very clean and precise definition between the various paints.
DECORATOR: Johannes Spitler (1774-1837) was a furniture painter who worked in the Massanutten area of Shenandoah (now Page) County, Virginia, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The oldest of eight children born to Pennsylvania natives Jacob and Nancy Henry Spitler, Johannes married Susanna Buswell (1776-1834) in 1796. Little else is known about Spitler’s life in Virginia, but the distinctive paint decoration he applied to a group of chests and clock cases in the northern Valley of Virginia has brought Spitler considerable notoriety in the twentieth century. Although he signed or initialed only a few of his creations, a large number of pieces have been attributed to him through close comparison of the artisan’s designs and techniques.
Situated between the western slope of Massanutten Mountain and the Shenandoah River, the Massanutten district saw its initial European settlement in the 1720s when a group of nine families from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, acquired lands there. Most of these men and women were first or second generation Swiss and German immigrants whose families had fled the Rhine Valley to escape religious and political persecution. As with many Germanic communities in western Virginia, the Massanutten settlement was isolated by design, largely because of the settlers’ desire to retain some degree of cultural homogeneity. Their seclusion was facilitated by Massanutten Mountain, which separated them from the Great Wagon Road that ran down the valley. In this protected setting, artisans like Spitler were able to retain traditional craft ways without the altering presence of outside patrons and imported artifacts until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Johannes Spitler worked in Massanutten for only a decade or so, but his decorative ideas had a lasting influence on other area painters, as suggested by a number of painted chests with similarly rendered organic and geometric motifs, notably the paired birds and crescent moons. Sometime around 1807, Spitler’s parents moved to Fairfield County, Ohio. Johannes and several of his married siblings followed shortly. What he did in Ohio remains a mystery. Like many other German-American settlers, he may have spent part of his time farming. In 1826, Jacob Spitler deeded 106 acres to his son, Johannes, who appears as “John” in the Fairfield County records. Spitler sold this property in 1835, a year after the death of his wife, Susanna. Two years later, he died at the age of sixty-two. Several furniture forms with Spitler-like designs have been found in Ohio, but they cannot be tied to Spitler’s work with any certainty. The only hint of what Spitler did for the final quarter-century of his life in Ohio is a claim against his estate seeking repayment for a wide range of goods including many references to large quantities of liquor, suggesting that he may have operated a tavern. The Fairfield County probate records note that “Found in chest of said Spitler” were three books printed in German, an ax, and a spade. His estate also included a tall clock, a large chest, a small chest, and an “old chair,” but no large tool or painter’s kits.
POSSIBLE CABINETMAKERS: Beyond such thematic investigations, more also needs to be learned about the cabinetmakers or joiners who built the chests and the clock cases that Spitler decorated. Research by MESDA has revealed a large number of joiners and cabinetmakers working in the northern Valley of Virginia, but none can be directly associated with the Spitler decorated cases. A variety of structural and stylistic approaches are found on the furniture in this group, which in turn suggests production by several different woodworking shops. Distinguishing characteristics of the work of this unidentified artisan include the prominent use of thickly cut yellow pine components and plain cove moldings above the feet. Like many other German-American woodworkers, this craftsman relied heavily on wooden pin, or trunnel, construction. A detail that particularly distinguishes this maker is the insertion of a vertical pin through the uppermost dovetail pin at each corner.
NEW SCHOLARSHIP: Decorative arts scholar Elizabeth Davison is presently working on a book on this group, so new information is forthcoming.
CONDITION: Hole and three large nails on top. Molding is wearing.
Research by 2014 MESDA Summer Institute student, Patricia A. Hobbs, suggests that the original owner of the chest was Barbara (Gander) Comer Buracker (1786-1872). A daughter of George Gander (1758-1820), one of Johannes Spitler’s known patrons, Barbara married Henry Comer in 1805, and this chest was probably made at that time. Comer died two years later, and probate records reveal that Barbara purchasd at her husband’s estate sale not only her own pots, pans, and dishes, but also two “chests with drawers” for $1.10 each. One of them is likely MESDA’s chest.
In 1811, Barbara married her second husband, Michael Buracker (1788-1832), who died without making a will. His estate inventory also listed two chests: “1 blue chest $1.00” and “1 painted chest $1.00.” Again, property was sold and delivered to Buracker’s widow at the appraised prices totaling $1387.75. It seems likely that the painted chest was Barbara’s, as she kept reacquiring it, and that it remained in the Buracker family until 1956.