Encyclopedia of American Folk Art

By Gerard C.Wertkin; Lee Kogan | Go to book overview

P

PAINTED FURNITURE:

SEE FURNITURE, PAINTED AND DECORATED.


PAINTED TINWARE:

SEE TINWARE, PAINTED.


PAINTING, AMERICAN FOLK

is a broad term that comprises a wide variety of mediums and techniques practiced by both amateur and professional artists from the colonial period to the present. American folk painting has developed largely in tandem with and parallel to other streams of American art, while embracing a wide segment of American society rather than elite consumer circles. Throughout the history of folk painting in America, techniques and imagery have responded to both traditional and fashionable trends, as well as historical art movements (albeit often through secondary sources), technological innovations, aesthetic changes, and cultural influences that have determined the direction of American art.

An appreciation of American folk painting can be traced to the early decades of the twentieth century, at a point when Modernism coincided with the Colonial Revival movement. The sense of linearity and abstraction that is often associated with American folk painting resonated with the work of Modernists such as Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). Through artists like Sheeler, and their circle of patrons, dealers, and museums, an awareness of folk painting traditions in America reached ever-widening audiences.

In the most limited consideration of the term, American folk painting might include only those two-dimensional forms that fall within the fine arts canon, notably portraiture, landscapes, and still-lifes. In its wider and more commonly accepted interpretation, however, the term, as it is applied to artworks created before the twentieth century, also refers to a variety of painted embellishments (architectural elements, such as interior wall murals, and furniture, boxes, and tinware) as well as to other decorative arts, and to specific genres such as theorem painting, ship portraits, architectural portraits, panorama painting, monochromatic painting, family records, fraktur, and Shaker drawings; the term additionally applies to village views, calligraphic exercises, fancy painting, and tinsel painting, among many other genres.

One of the distinguishing factors between folk and academic painters is the means by which they came to create art, and the ways in which they have gained their expertise. Some inherited artistic traditions are passed down through generations or within specific communities, such as the fraktur art of the Pennsylvania Germans or the retablos of the Hispanic South-west. The famous Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was trained as a carriage and sign painter before turning his talents to powerful visions of the Peaceable Kingdom. A few American folk painters enjoyed brief periods of study with academically trained artists. Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900), for instance, apprenticed for a short time in New York with Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872) before returning to New England, where he painted portraits and, later, historical and religious allegories. Many folk artists, however, did not receive any formal training and instead attained their skills through years of experience. Still others, such as the Shaker sisters who transcribed inspired gift drawings, produced religious paintings that emerged from their particular belief systems.

The primary form of painting in the colonial period was portraiture, which developed in two distinct styles. The earliest portraits followed a European court tradition in their flat, medieval style, with a Mannerist formality and emphasis on ornamentation and material trappings rather than realistic spatial relationships, proportions, and perspectives. The artists who began to arrive in the United States at the beginning of the eighteenth century brought with them a knowledge of the precepts of the Renaissance,

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