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ESSAYS

Israel Litwak

SELF-TAUGHT PAINTERS IN AMERICAN 1800-1950

Revisiting the Tradition

In 1982, the Galerie St. Etienne mounted an exhibition titled "The Folk Art Tradition: Naive Painting in Europe and the United States." Accompanied by a book-length catalogue, the show attempted to present a cohesive overview of a genre that had long resisted precise definition. In the ensuing quarter-century, the field variously known as "folk art," "naive art," "primitive art," "art brut," "outsider art" and "self-taught art" has become even messier and more conflicted. At the same time, however, scholarship has improved exponentially. Ironically, the fact that we today know so much more than we once did about the creators who constitute this field only makes it harder to find a common rubric under which to group them.

 

The origins of the field can be traced back to mid-nineteenth-century Europe. There, as later in the United States, interest in what the Germans dubbed Volkskunst initially had an ethnographic orientation. Urbanization and the ongoing erosion of handicraft by industrialization inspired Europeans to record and preserve for posterity the creations of the indigenous peasant class. From the outset, this mission had a political dimension: symbolically rooted in the native soil, folk art was readily appropriated to affirm national identity. For some observers, folk artists also evoked the Romantic ideal of the noble savage. These creators, it was believed, worked in atavistic idioms uncorrupted by modern society. Nationalistic and Romantic interpretations would reverberate through folk-art studies, both in the U.S. and abroad, for years to come.

 

Interest in American folk art was an extension of the so-called colonial revival, which was itself an outgrowth of the patriotism sparked by the nation's centennial in 1876. The arts-and-crafts movement, introduced to the U.S. toward the end of the nineteenth century, drew further attention to well-designed, well-made folk objects. As in Europe, advancing industrialization was also a factor, spurring nostalgia for the past and a desire to recapture "America's golden age." Collections proliferated, along with shops, auctions and magazine articles, but the focus was on historical documentation and interior decoration. "Period rooms," popular in museums, were emulated at home.

 

The idea of folk art as art, like awareness of the genre per se, originated in Europe. Picking up on the concept of the noble savage, European modernists decided in the early twentieth-century that untrained artists were inherently superior to members of the academic art establishment. The modernists made no real distinction between peasant craftsmen, children, self-taught contemporary painters like Henri Rousseau or creators from non-western cultures. All were commonly referred to as "primitives," because it was believed they could access the primordial roots of visual expression. And this is what the modernists hoped to achieve in their own work. Folk art legitimized modern art, and modern art in turn legitimized folk art.

 

By 1910, some of America’s more advanced artists had begun collecting domestic folk art, but the trend only took off in the 1920s and acquired ideological cohesion in the 1930s. Among the key shapers of this trajectory were Hamilton Easter Field (whose art school in Ogunquit Maine became a magnet for supporters of modernism), the artist Elie Nadelman, the dealer Edith Gregor Halpert and the curator Holger Cahill. In 1931, with Cahill’s assistance, Halpert's Downtown Gallery opened an annex specializing in American folk art. Major collectors such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller were at this point already onboard. Cahill further codified the field in his exhibitions "American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth-Century Folk Artists" (Newark Museum, 1930), "American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Craftsmen" (Newark Museum, 1931) and "American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America 1750-1900" (Museum of Modern Art, 1932). In 1938, MoMA expanded the genre's reach into the contemporary arena with "Masters of Popular Painting."

 

Folk art's transition from the realm of ethnography to fine art was not uncomplicated, as evidenced by the shifting nomenclature in the 1930s' exhibition titles. High-art terms like "painting" and "sculpture" glossed over those aspects of folk art that were based in utilitarian craft and communal traditions. Left open was the question whether use of the adjective "folk" should be confined to pre-industrial creations. Twentieth-century manifestations of similar impulses were more difficult to classify and name. Nonetheless, by whatever name, self-taught art proved remarkably in sync with Depression-era tastes. The genre was seen as being quintessentially American, fulfilling the need for a distinctive native art and providing a foundation for American modernism that appeared independent of any European prototype. At a time of massive socio-economic upheaval, folk artists exemplified unifying national values such as freedom, individualism and democratic egalitarianism. As Cahill stressed, this was the "art of the common man." Anointed as well with the aura of the noble savage, the work was "simple, unaffected and childlike." It was, Alice Winchester would write some years later, "characterized by the qualities belonging to the original state of man."

 

The stereotypes put forth by Cahill and carried through the twentieth century by successors like Winchester and Jean Lipman have only recently begun to be deconstructed and challenged. The "art of the common man," we now realize, was largely the art of white men of European descent living in the Northeastern United States. The "noble savage" paradigm proved equally insidious, requiring that each artist be viewed as a tabula rasa. Early studies ignored the elaborate interplay between idiosyncratic innovation, community-based standards and outside influences that characterizes most folk painting. The context in which the work originated was of scant interest.

 

During America’s colonial period, art was essentially a European import, albeit one for which the early settlers had little time. The Revolution brought greater cultural independence, but Europe continued to be seen as the arbiter of upper-class standards, the place where ambitious American painters went to study. At the same time, the United States was developing a broad-based middle class with the means and desire to celebrate its success. An upsurge in consumerism increased the demand for portraits. Portraits affirmed the sitters’ social standing and, in an era of high mortality rates, supplemented the genealogical records that were commonly appended to family Bibles. As interior decoration, portraits were more acceptable to Puritan households than “fancy” subjects like landscapes.

 

The first half of the nineteenth century was the heyday of the “limner”: itinerant artists who traveled the countryside painting portraits. The absence of guilds in the U.S. made it easy for a farmer to supplement his income by taking up a trade, and limning was an extension of crafts such as house-painting, gilding and sign-painting. Many limners combined portraiture with other sorts of decorative work; only the most successful, like Ammi Phillips, could live off portrait commissions alone. The best documented limners worked overlapping territories in Pennsylvania, New York and New England, and it is likely their paths crossed. Some had direct or indirect contact with academically trained artists; Erastus Salisbury Field studied with Samuel F. B. Morse, and Joseph Whiting Stock took lessons from a student of Chester Harding. Engravings and mezzotints, often imported from England, transmitted additional information about academic poses and techniques.

 

From these sundry sources, limners cobbled together an ad-hoc approach that combined elements of polished realism with comparatively crude abstraction. Understandably, they paid the most attention to faces and used stylized garments to cloak their ignorance of anatomical rendering. Artists often enlivened compositions with decorative details such as lace and patterned fabrics to underscore the sitters’ prosperity. Economic considerations helped determine a portrait’s size, complexity and degree of finish. William Matthew Prior, who ran a workshop in collaboration with his relatives Sturtevant J. Hamblin and George Hartwell, advertised that, “Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one quarter price.” The Prior-Hamblin group also charged less for “side views and profiles of children.” Miniatures, watercolors and silhouettes, priced according to the amount of detail, served the lowest end of the market. Nonetheless, even the most elaborate and costly limner portraits never achieved the level of three-dimensional accuracy found in their academic counterparts.

 

Portrait-painting was a relatively low-status occupation, but America’s limners were often more financially successful than their better-educated colleagues. John Vanderlyn bemoaned the fact that people evidently preferred the portraits of Ammi Phillips to his own more refined landscapes and history paintings. “Were I to begin in life again,” Vanderlyn advised his young nephew, “I would not hesitate to follow this plan, . . . to paint portraits cheap & slight, for the mass of folks can’t judge the merits of a well-finished picture.” While Erastus Salisbury Field prospered, poverty forced his one-time teacher Samuel Morse to abandon art for science. Best remembered for inventing the telegraph, Morse in 1839 dealt a death-blow to the limner profession by introducing the daguerreotype to the U.S..

 

Daguerreotypes were simply cheaper, faster to produce and more accurate than any painted portrait. Some limners, like Field, tried to master the new technology or to work from photographic sources, but this yielded stilted, less pleasing paintings. In the 1840s, Field changed his professional title from “portrait painter” to “artist,” and began to depict more “artistic” historical and Biblical subjects. Similarly, William Mathew Prior switched to landscapes in the 1850s. However, technology had brought unbeatable competition into the market for “fancy” pictures as well. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, commercial lithographers like Currier and Ives turned out inexpensive prints by the thousands. There were images to suit every taste: landscapes, portraits of celebrities and historical figures, records of newsworthy events, religious themes, decorative subjects and cartoons. It was the end of the line for the professional folk painter, and the beginning of the age of the amateur.

 

Industrialization gave people more leisure time for hobbies, and popular prints proved inspirational to amateur painters. Whereas portraits had predominated among their professional predecessors, self-taught artists active around the turn of the twentieth century favored landscapes. Signed or unsigned, many of these paintings appear as one-off attempts, impossible to connect to a larger body of work. The oeuvre of Joseph Pickett, now considered among the most important self-taught artists of this period, would probably have been lost had Holger Cahill not salvaged a few paintings for his 1930 exhibition. The art world’s quest for contemporary self-taught painters, which began when the Pittsburgh laborer John Kane was admitted to the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1927, rescued numerous talented amateurs from otherwise certain oblivion.

 

Save for an initial dearth of professional opportunities, the best amateurs were in many fundamental respects similar to the nineteenth-century limners. They pursued their craft with wholehearted intensity, acquiring a knowledge of artistic process through trial-and-error and by studying available source materials. Kane haunted the Carnegie Museum and local libraries, assiduously copying pictures from art books. Morris Hirshfield, a retired garment manufacturer, produced full-scale templates, similar to dress patterns, for each of his paintings. Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses, like many of the anonymous amateurs who preceded her, loved the landscapes of Currier and Ives, but she soon replaced their typically narrow compositional format with a broader, quilt-like perspective that better suited her own experience of nature. Similarly, Kane combined views sketched from several locations to create scenes of Pittsburgh depicting what he knew in his mind’s eye to be there, rather than what could be seen from any one vantage point.

 

Economic circumstances had prevented this modern cohort of self-taught painters from pursuing artistic training, but all of them harbored a need to share their work with the public. Otherwise they would not have been “discovered”: Kane by submitting his work repeatedly to the Carnegie International’s jury; Moses through a “women’s exchange” at a local drugstore; William Doriani at the Washington Square Art Mart; Patsy Santo at the Vermont state fair. Nevertheless, none of these artists was equipped to compete in the high reaches of the art world, whose agenda remained inscrutable and, as it turned out, not entirely friendly.

 

Cahill and others who championed folk painting as America’s ur-artform failed to anticipate the anger this would arouse in the nation’s trained artists. Much like John Vanderlyn in the nineteenth-century, academic painters resented the fact that such crude upstarts could be more successful than they. Some attempted to discredit Kane by saying he painted over photographs. After MoMA gave Hirshfield a one-man exhibition in 1943, the museum’s director, Alfred Barr, was excoriated in the press and, as a result, removed from his post. When the U.S. Information Service sent a Moses show to Europe in 1950, The New York Times was not pleased. “[The Europeans] praise our naiveté and integrity,” a reviewer wrote, “but they begrudge us a full, sophisticated art expression. Grandma Moses represents both what they expect of us and what they are willing to grant us.” As a rising superpower in the postwar years, America abandoned the effort to seek an artistic identity in its folk traditions and instead embraced the work of the Abstract Expressionists.

 

And so it ended. Grandma Moses, one of the most popular American artists of the 1940s and ‘50s, went on to influence generations of children’s book illustrators and self-styled “naives,” but self-taught painters disappeared from the upper echelons of the art world. Folk art was relegated to the past, and to separatist institutions like New York’s Museum of Early American Folk Arts (today the American Folk Art Museum). Nonetheless, beyond the restrictive confines of the art world, self-taught artists were still making art in much the same ways they always had. Even as the American elite turned its back on self-taught art, the European artist Jean Dubuffet was laying the groundwork for the genre’s revival.

 

Dubuffet’s concept of “art brut” (raw art) was essentially a revival of the old “noble savage” ideal, but taken to a greater extreme than previously. Whereas earlier definitions of "folk" and "primitive" art had hinged on lack of training, Dubuffet required that "his" artists operate at the furthest remove from “received culture.” Commonly translated as "outsider art," art brut could not (despite the best efforts of its most ardent champions) escape the taint of implied mental or social impairment. Awkward attempts to classify artists according to biography and to parse subjective issues like authenticity were further complicated by the inherent racism of the term "outsider," which assumed a white, "insider" perspective on cultural boundaries.

 

As Dubuffet admitted, there is no such thing as "pure" art brut; all art is to a greater or lesser degree affected by received culture. And while folklorists, conversely, emphasize preexisting community traditions over idiosyncratic invention, the truth is that even folk crafts involve a mix of the two. Nineteenth-century limners, early twentieth-century self-taught painters and late twentieth-century outsiders navigated along a continuum, somewhere between the "raw" and the "cooked"; the wholly a-cultural and the fully cultured. What set these artists apart from the mainstream had nothing to do with some mythical ideal of purity, but was, quite simply, a matter of social class.

 

Americans want to believe we live in a classless society, ignoring the differences in education, wealth, race, ethnicity and gender that separate the upper echelons of the art world from ordinary citizens. Championing the work of self-taught artists has sometimes been a way to deny those differences. Collectors like the Rockefellers could lay claim to a grass-roots tradition that both mollified and justified the enormity of their wealth. Dubuffet appropriated unschooled stylistic tropes to lend greater "authenticity" to his own work. By anointing certain self-taught artists with their approval, the elite turned dross into gold. But the alchemical powers vested in the elite, and their judgments of the unschooled were often tinged with condescension. Acceptance of lower-echelon creators by the art-world mainstream did not challenge class boundaries; on the contrary, it affirmed them.

 

Understanding the field of self-taught art as an artifact of social class is the first step toward disentangling it from its distorted history. The second step requires understanding that this is not a genre, nor even a field, in any conventional sense, but rather a congeries of disparate creations. While there may be connections--communities of shared influence--among some of the artists, they do not hang together as a whole. Therefore, each body of work must be studied in terms of its specific context and the particular intentions of its creator. Judgments of authenticity must be replaced by judgments of quality. Self-taught artists deserve to be assessed by the same standards as trained artists: by weighing their assimilation of available visual resources and their success in developing formal vocabularies that effectively express an original vision.

We would like to express our wholehearted appreciation to the Bennington Museum, to its Director, Stephen Perkins, and its Curator, Jamie Franklin, without whose generous support this exhibition would not have been possible. We also extend warmest thanks to the private lenders and colleagues who assisted us with this show. Checklist entries are accompanied by their catalogue raisonné numbers where applicable; height precedes width.