The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman at the New York Historical Society

Sponsored by no less a personage than Helena Rubenstein, the Polish sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) arrived in New York in 1914. Born in Poland, Nadelman studied sculpture prior to World War I in Munich and Paris, which was a hotbed of avant-garde art and ideas. After immigrating to New York City in 1914, he established a reputation for his witty, modernist sculptures. Nadelman married Viola Spiess Flannery, a European-educated wealthy widow, in 1919. Shortly after their marriage, the dashing couple began collecting folk art, both European and American. Part of a group of early collectors, the Nadelmans coined the phrase “Folk Art” and defined the parameters of the discipline, a passion that became an obsession.

Elie Nadelman’s sculptures, which took inspiration from folk art, are lyrical and elegant, modernist and unique. At the current exhibition at the New York Historical Association, his works form the spine of the show, and are juxtaposed with some of the finest examples of folk art from the Nadelman Collection. Toys and paintings, extraordinary boxes and intricate tools, carvings, glassware, pottery, tools and samplers, fraktur and chalk ware figures, all blend seamlessly with Nadelman’s sculptures.


From 1926 until 1937, the Nadelmans presented their voluminous collection, spanning six centuries and thirteen countries, in their groundbreaking Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts in Riverdale, New York. The Nadelmans’ innovative museum was the first of its type in the United States.

The Nadelmans suffered financially with the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, and by the early 1930s had begun to sell off works from their collection to finance its upkeep. In 1937, they sold the entire collection of some 15,000 objects to the New-York Historical

Society, which was in the midst of a building expansion and recognized the Nadelman trove as an opportunity to capitalize on the contemporary surge of interest in the “common man.” The purchase enlivened New-York Historical’s formal galleries with engaging displays of objects of everyday life.


The current exhibit, featuring more than 200 objects across a wide range of media is the first major exhibition to focus on the Nadelmans’ trailblazing venture. Many of the objects on view are drawn from the New-York Historical Society’s Nadelman collection, acquired from the artist in 1937, and are enhanced by several key loans of Elie Nadelman’s sculpture.

“The objects collected by artist Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola comprised the first public folk art collection in the United States, as well as the first ever to consider the European roots of American folk art,” notes New-York Historical’s Vice President and Museum Director Margaret K. Hofer, who also serves as exhibition co-curator. “Since 1937, the Nadelmans’ astounding material legacy has held pride of place in the permanent collection of New York City’s first museum, the New-York Historical Society.”

Co-curator Dr. Roberta J. M. Olson, New-York Historical’s Curator of Drawings, adds: “We hope visitors will leave the exhibition with new insights into the intersection of folk art and modernism, the Nadelmans’ enduring influence on the history of American art collecting, and the relationship between American and European folk art. The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman not only recognizes Elie Nadelman’s eye for collecting a rich cornucopia of wonderful yet simple forms, it also reexamines folk art’s influence on his own sculpture.”

(This wonderful exhibition is on until August 21. For further information, see

Elie Nadelman (1882–1946) Dancer (Danseuse), ca. 1920–22 (plaster, ca. 1919) Cherry, 28 1/4 in. high Jewish Museum, Gift in Memory of Muriel Rand by her husband William Rand, 1992.37 © Estate of Elie Nadelman
Elie Nadelman (1882–1946)
Dancer (Danseuse), ca. 1920–22 (plaster, ca. 1919)
Cherry, 28 1/4 in. high
Jewish Museum, Gift in Memory of Muriel Rand by her
husband William Rand, 1992.37
© Estate of Elie Nadelman


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