The Cult Of The Primitives

PrintPrintEmailEmailThere is one statement about old American art which most educated Americans, whatever their further ignorance of the subject, cherish. At this very instant, many voices are undoubtedly imparting to unwilling ears—ears unwilling because their owners had intended to tell the same anecdote—that the itinerant portraitists called “primitives” carried around stocks of pre-painted bodies, which they spread out on the lawns of farmhouses, offering to paint the head of the wife into whichever she preferred. To be slim, elegant and bejewelled involved, of course, a premium price.

No evidence exists that this ever happened. Authentic documents are silent concerning such a practice; and half-painted headless canvases have never been found, although there remain hundreds which were abandoned when the head was completed but the body not begun. Prefabrication of background and pose and costume would have made sense for the itinerants, since it would have given them employment when the roads were blocked by winter; yet they followed immemorial European studio practice by painting heads first, even if they later put in the bodies altogether from imagination in their studios or boarding houses.

The prefabrication fallacy is a minor though typical detail in the mass of picturesque misconceptions which have resulted in the deification of American Primitives—also known as American Folk Artists—at the expense of their better-trained colleagues. A portrait by a sign painter in which the face is a naïve, wayward design is considered superior to “a speaking likeness”; a landscape is the more admired the more cramped the perspective, the more symbolic and unnaturalistic the trees. The taste for such pictures has risen in the last thirty years to the level of a cult, complete with esthetic and historical theories of its own.

Although the theories now have a strong nationalistic tinge, the first step in their development was made abroad. Reacting against the efforts to reproduce visual reality that had dominated European art since the Renaissance, modernists in Paris sought to paint not things, but their reaction to things. In their efforts to find a visual language which would be a direct expression of emotion, they studied pictures by individuals who were assumed not to suffer sophisticated restraints: madmen, savages, children, naïve painters. When the art they had built up partially from such sources was introduced to the United States by the Armory Show of 1913, it seemed altogether an import; an impression that filled isolationists with indignation against what they called European decadence, and internationalists, who admired the paintings, with uneasiness lest Americans could never achieve such effects.

A way out was discovered by French artistic travelers, including Fernand Léger, and native art students returned from Paris, who happened on pictures by forgotten American painters in which flat forms and unnaturalistic colors bore some resemblance to advanced European work. Here was both defense and encouragement for American modernists, the more persuasive because irrelevant considerations made it possible to assume that such art was a uniquely American phenomenon.


France’s well-publicized “naïfs” like Henri Rousseau, the customs collector-painter, seemed isolated individuals, while American primitive pictures, as soon as they were valued, turned up in such quantity that they were considered a natural outpouring of the people. As a matter of fact, a very similar art had been created in Europe by and for the lower middle class. It was less ubiquitous, because that class was less ubiquitous, and also because sophisticated instruction was easier to come by. It had been ignored by critics, and even the wave of modernism has not uncovered much of it. Feeling no similar need for nationalistic reassurance, concentrating on other sources of inspiration which their richer traditions opened to them, Europeans are glad to leave primitives as a mass movement to America. When such pictures are bought in England, Germany, or France, it is commonly for export to the United States, where they can be sold for large prices as examples of native American genius.

Primitives are regarded on these shores as glorious examples of American democracy at work. Since most of the artists were obscure in their own times, their names have either been lost, or if recorded in signatures on the canvases, appear in no obvious reference books. The pictures are considered, for all practical purposes, anonymous, and that is regarded as one of their greatest virtues. They were, it is gleefully assumed, painted by anybody, just folks, the American Everyman. Research, obviously, can never pin down such painters; little research has been undertaken. The only test a theory as to the origins of the pictures has to undergo is whether it is persuasive enough to be widely repeated.