Pa. German fraktur subject of exhibits, comprehensive catalog

PHILA., Pa. – Fraktur is the name used for documents and religious texts that – in the hands of Pennsylvania German artists – became an important expression of American folk art. The name is derived from the angular appearance of the “fractured” German lettering used on this type of ephemera. Serious collectors have been willing to pay five and six figures for the best examples, and in 2015, the spotlight is on their specialty.

Three exhibitions and the most comprehensive work of scholarship in the last 50 years will introduce a wider audience to the beauty and historical importance of these fragile works on paper. Now open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection” will be on view through April 26. The Johnsons have promised the future gift of their extensive holdings to the museum. Nearby, the Free Library of Philadelphia will present an exhibition of works drawn from its own permanent collection titled “Quill & Brush: Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Material Culture,” to run March 2 through June 14.

On March 1, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware will open “A Colorful Folk: Pennsylvania Germans, and the Art of Everyday Life,” a broader yearlong exhibition which groups fraktur with other art forms from this distinctive culture such as painted furniture, decorated pottery and textiles. In 2014, Winterthur purchased 121 fraktur and nearly 200 textiles from the estate of Frederick S. Weiser, an ordained Lutheran pastor and legendary scholar and collector of Pennsylvania German folk art. Assembled by Weiser over a span of more than 40 years and with a careful eye to collecting the most significant or rare examples, the collection includes many objects acquired directly from descendants of the original owner or maker. Many objects were featured in Weiser’s publications, exhibitions, and lectures and represent a core group of well-documented pieces on which scholars rely.

The guiding force behind this exhibition activity is Winterthur assistant curator Lisa Minardi, who has authored the comprehensive Drawn with Spirit catalog, which is the most important scholarly study of fraktur since Donald Shelley’s 1961 publication for the Pennsylvania German Folk Art Society. The catalog opens with an informative interview with the Johnsons by Ann Percy, curator of drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their comments are accompanied by interior views of the collectors’ home, showing how they enjoyed displaying the fraktur. This is followed by over 300 pages of information assembled by Minardi on the origins, motifs, techniques and distinctive schools of fraktur, profusely illustrated with examples from the Johnson Collection.

In an interview with Auction Central News, Lisa Minardi explained, “The three projects came about very separately; it was just coincidental that the timing was overlapping. I have made fraktur my specialty and I’ve know the Johnsons for years – they wanted me to write the catalog. That was the first ball that was moving. The Free Library had hired me in 2007-2009 to help recatalog their whole fraktur collection. When they received this grant to do two exhibitions on traditional and contemporary, I guess it a natural fit for me to do the traditional one.”

She continued, “At Winterthur, we made a big acquisition last year of Pastor Frederick S. Weiser’s collection and there was an opening on the exhibition schedule. I think there is really strength in numbers, and these exhibitions make the Delaware Valley a destination if you’re interested in folk art. You really have to come and see all three.” Winterthur will also issue a separate catalog for their exhibition.

According to Minardi, “The Winterthur exhibition is a little different than the other two because it’s not just a fraktur exhibition; it’s very much a mixed media show with furniture, pottery, metalwork – all sorts of media. We were aiming for it to be more like the 1983 traveling exhibition that Winterthur and the PMA did – “The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of their Arts, 1683-1850.” There really hasn’t been a comprehensive exhibition of German folk art since then. We’re aiming to address that with new scholarship and new exhibitions.”

In her opening introduction to the Johnson catalog, Minardi wrote, “Fraktur has become one of the most distinctive and iconic forms of American folk art. The most common type made by the Pennsylvania Germans was the Geburts-und-Taufschein, or birth and baptismal certificate. Whether handwritten or printed, these documents typically include extensive genealogical data … in addition to decorative motifs such as hearts, flowers, angels and birds.” The catalog illustrates a variety of these birth and baptismal certificates, which were obviously a favorite of the Johnsons, but there are also decorated bookplates, religious views and texts, cutwork valentines, and just-for-fun drawings.

The good news for newly interested collectors is that fine examples come to the market every day at auctions around the country. Family records were often tucked away for safekeeping, only to emerge in the 21st century as bright and colorful as the day they were drawn up. Jeffrey S. Evans heads an auction house in Mount Crawford, Virginia, which features fraktur in their Americana sales, particularly rare examples made in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Evans noted, “There’s not only much less Virginia fraktur produced, there’s also much less of it that has survived. That’s the reason that it brings higher prices than examples from Pennsylvania. Most of the artists in the Shenandoah Valley either came from Pennsylvania or had training in Pennsylvania, especially in the counties of Rockingham and Shenandoah. All the fraktur that came out of those counties are based on Pennsylvania fraktur and the large majority are in German. Frederick County is a little bit different because it was primarily Scots-Irish, so some of the fraktur from there – the Record Book artist and others – that are written in English.” One example in English, a Frederick County record of Mary E. Jones’ death in 1849 by an unknown artist sold for $29,900 at Evans in 2013.

Demand remains strong according to Evans: “Especially in things that are Southern and regional when there’s a good story about the artist and the family, and especially things that have descended in the family. A matter of fact, we were just consigned a fraktur for our June sale that was found in the family Bible, that had not been discovered before, so there are some fraktur that are still coming to light out of the original families which makes them extremely desirable. Collectors like to have things that they are the first one to have collected, that are new to the market.”

The catalog Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection is available from the Philadelphia Museum of Art bookstore; visit or call 215-684-7960.

Collectors also can look forward to an upcoming conference March 5-8, “Fraktur and the Everyday Lives of Germans in Pennsylvania and the Atlantic World, 1683-1850.” Lisa Minardi encourages all interested to attend: “The joint conference will be based primarily in Philadelphia at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies on Penn’s campus, but there will be different events happening at all the participating institutions. It’s geared toward both a scholarly and general audience, so you don’t have to come in there knowing everything about fraktur. There will be general talks, there will be talks about materials such as pigments, there will be talks about different sorts of imagery.”

More information is available at