Peaceable Kingdom (detail). Circa 1849. Oil on canvas. 24" x 30 1/4" (61 x 76.8 cm). Private collection.
Self-Taught Artists in the 19th Century and Earlier
Folk art is literally the art of the people, or "folk." The concept originated in Europe, where there was a sharp division between artists who trained at the academies and painted for rich aristocrats, and artisans who worked for the peasants. Folk artists served the latter group in the days before the proliferation of mass-produced consumer goods. European folk art usually conforms to traditional patterns that were handed down from generation to generation. It tends to be utilitarian in purpose and communal in orientation. Household objects such as quilts or painted cupboards fall into this category, as do devotional objects like votive paintings. Purists exclude most other types of painting from their definition of "folk art," because paintings tend to be expressions of autonomous, personal visions, rather than conforming to communal dictates.
However, this strict, European-derived definition of folk art does not fit very comfortably with the type of work found in pre-industrial America. There were, to be sure, plenty of crafts produced in the United States that fit the textbook definition of folk art. However, because the U.S. did not establish museums or art academies until the late 19th century, it had a far richer, more individualist tradition of folk painting than is to be seen in Europe. So-called limners traveled from town to town painting portraits of ordinary citizens in a style that mingled ad-hoc aesthetics with academic conventions derived principally from imported engravings. Some self-taught American painters, such as the Quaker preacher Edward Hicks, are considered among the greatest American artists of the 19th century.