An Appreciation of Nineteenth-Century Folk Portraits

Many so-called “primitive” portraits of the first half of the nineteenth century are extraordinarily captivating in their abstract, imaginative, and seemingly humble execution. Their beauty and charm lie in the manner in which the artists used colors and perspective. While the most prized primitive portraits show degrees of ingenuity and a divorce from reality that appeal to today’s aesthetics, there was an appreciation for the images many years prior. Early-twentieth-century artists Robert Laurent, William Zorach, Elie Nadelman, and Charles Sheeler recognized the abstract qualities of American “primitives” and not only collected them, but drew inspiration from them.

The often asked question, “But is it a good likeness?” doesn’t apply exclusively to folk portraits. In modern portraiture the likeness often bears little resemblance to the actual sitter, though we still see the result as an appealing work of art. The same can be said for primitive folk portraits. More important than attaining a likeness was the fact that the artist probably achieved his goal of painting an image that pleased the sitter and his or her family.

Primitive portraits were generally painted by itinerant artists who worked for food and lodging or who rented their facilities, staying in an area until all interested subjects had been painted before moving on. They occasionally advertised their services in newspapers, offering additional skills such as fancy, sign, and coach painting to broaden their potential for income. Some artists charged different rates depending on how much a sitter was willing to spend, which was reflected in whether the finished product had more or less realism and modeling. Some itinerant artists painted at a rate of two or three portraits per day, providing little opportunity to correct errors or attempt significant over-painting. Most of these artists did not sign their names. When they did, it was usually on the back of the canvas, with information about the sitter, location, or date. As a result, most attributions are based on rare signed examples, documents, or family histories.

Portraits by academically trained artists of this era are generally quite realistic: facial features are modeled with subtle shading, highlights, and coloring; the body is anatomically correct, with a natural pose; the perspective is accurate; and fabrics are identifiable, and backgrounds, furnishings, and accoutrements are attentively detailed.

In contrast, primitive portraits usually show a linear format with flat facial features; a pose, frequently stiff, that is turned three-quarters or is fully frontal; minimal shadowing to indicate the direction of light; simplified versions of hands, ears, hair, and disproportionately sized heads; arms and legs extended from bodies in distorted directions; sometimes greater attention paid to details of clothing and backgrounds as compared to the face; backgrounds may be either plain and free of objects and scenery or, conversely, a fanciful rendition. Though artists had varying skills, with some having modest academic training, most primitive folk portraits exhibit some or all of the above characteristics.

Primitive portrait painters occasionally used the same props in their images, “dressing” the sitters in the same outfits and reusing pieces of jewelry. Many primitive artists didn’t focus on extraneous details, either because they felt they were not necessary or were not trained to recreate them. But some artists paid close attention to their sitters’ personal idiosyncrasies and to the background and fixtures.

In 1980, Tom Armstrong, former director of the Whitney Museum, noted that early “folk artists display much greater creativity and artistic ability than they have previously been credited.” He was summarizing the change in appreciation and recognition of folk paintings that started in the mid-twentieth century among art historians, collectors, and dealers; works that had been admired decades earlier by modern artists. While many folk portraits are relatively crude, having been described as “ancestor paintings” until the 1960s and ‘70s, most of the primitive artists of the first half of the nineteenth century clearly had a desire to improve their abilities, which was often reflected in their changing styles.

Many primitive, or folk, artists of the period from 1800 through the 1850s were truly talented and creative individuals. Through their work they exhibited artistic expression and created a true original American art form.

By David Krashes
Antiques & Fine Art Magazine