Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century American Folk Art

The collection of American folk art at the Metropolitan Museum is characterized by pure serendipity. It is highly prized and was acquired almost entirely by gift. Among the generous donors, Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch stand out as the principle benefactors. Enthusiastic collectors of myriad works of art, the Garbisches began buying American paintings and antiques in the 1940s for their country home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They soon began a program of giving works to museums that concluded with their bountiful bequest in 1980; in all, the Metropolitan received more than 100 paintings and drawings.

The Garbisches described their American paintings as naive, casting their weighty vote in the terminology debates sparked by this field of study. Others refer to such art as plain, rural, provincial, outsider, idiosyncratic, or nonacademic—terms that are all marred by implications of condescension and inferiority. At the Metropolitan, we use the term “folk art” because it is traditional and recognizable, even if it does not begin to characterize the diversity of artistic approaches and expressions it purports to represent. No single term can meet that challenge.

Folk paintings are unified by conventions of method, aesthetics, and circumstance. The artists worked principally in the Northeast, away from urban centers; most spent their careers moving from place to place courting local audiences. Quite a few were highly trained ornamental painters. Almost all of them favored strong colors, broad and direct application of paint, patterned surfaces, generalized light, skewed scale and proportion, and conspicuous modeling. Most developed compositional formulas that allowed them to work quickly, with limited materials and in makeshift studios.

Portraiture was by far the most prevalent art form among itinerant painters in the American Northeast. These artists spent their careers on the road, seeking commissions. While most developed distinctive styles and artistic methods, all of their works betray the common circumstances of their nomadic production in rural America, and all are indebted in some measure to academic conventions. The poses, props, and settings for country portraits were no different from those employed by artists in the cities. These portraits, however, are restrained in every other respect. They are characterized by sharply defined forms, neatly organized compositions with clearly defined spatial arrangements, some with an almost mathematical precision and symmetry, generalized lighting, equal attention paid to all areas of the canvas, an absence of expressive brushwork, and an overall flatness and linearity. A current, compelling theory about the look of folk portraits is that they matched the face of the neatly and geometrically farmed agrarian landscape. In any case, it is important to recognize that folk artists worked according to criteria set by their rural clientele. As a group, the portraits describe socially reticent sitters eager to record a likeness but shy of declaring personality and emotion. Elements of pride and class status are apparent but circumspect. Portraits record lasting traits and conditions (some are even memorials to the dead), rather than transitory mannerisms and situations.

It is common to think of folk painters as untrained, but most were in fact highly trained and multi-talented. Different types of art required different types of preparation, and those artists who apprenticed to craftsmen or to artisans developed a unique repertoire of skills, a distinct vocabulary of subject matter, and a peculiar expressive vision. Most folk artists began their careers painting signs or furniture, which required special techniques to ensure legibility and durability. When they turned to academic forms of painting, that is, two-dimensional works without utilitarian function, their particular skills recommended them, especially to clients who wanted pictures that resonated with familiar images and techniques. Paintings by artists trained as craftsmen are highly illustrative, emblematic, and moralistic; religious and historical subjects are common and naturalism is rare. The relative importance of figures is indicated by their size, and animals, which are usually emblematic, are ubiquitous.