The Cult Of The Primitives


Lack of opportunity faced all our early artists, whether they ended up as primitives or not. That language of painting which enables the hand to express what the eye sees had been developed abroad, and it had never been adequately imported to these shores. The search for a profound personal style, which was expedited for Europeans by their environment, involved in America an arduous struggle against odds that sometimes seemed, even to the most sanguine spirits, overwhelming. The two easiest courses were to decide at some intermediate spot that you had gone far enough, or to achieve a ready-made sophistication by slavish imitation of European art. The First of these alternatives produced primitives, the second such feeble artists as William Merritt Chase whose pale reflections of foreign fashions gave them, while the fashions remained, fashionable American acclaim.


Perhaps because cultists are more sensitive to other cults than to the achievements of isolated individuals, the primitives theory finds in the opposition between these two groups the sum of American art, and asks us to choose which we wish to make stand for our national creativity. The choice between an unpretentious rudimentary art and an art slick but without conviction is hardly a happy one, but fortunately we do not have to make it.

The ablest and most resolute spirits among Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American painters—such men as Robert Feke, John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Cole, George Innes, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Albert Pinkham Ryder—did not balk at hurdles or avoid them by trying to run a different race. They started out by making use of whatever artistic sources they could get their hands on—many started out as primitives—and they used those sources to express as best they could what they themselves felt. From this beginning, they advanced through the twin means of further research and personal experimentation. If they were lucky, research carried them to Europe, but in the fabled art galleries of the Old World they were not overwhelmed; they selected from those vast storehouses of styles and inspirations the styles and inspirations which best suited their personal visions. Because those visions had developed in the United States in a different time from the old masters, in a culture somewhat different from that of their European contemporaries, they could find nothing outside themselves that was completely relevant; everything had to be altered in the test tubes of their own brilliant minds. Their work never became as sophisticated as that of their European contemporaries—a rugged directness gave it its particular flavor—yet they had no use for the naïveté admired by the primitives cult: that would have meant inaccurate control of the medium they practiced.

Inaccurate control is of no advantage to an artist. Those masters of modernism who feel that their best efforts well up independently of volition seek precision of technique, for even the subconscious mind needs a mature language in which to express itself. That leading contemporary painters believe in the importance of what they are doing and work with dedication to secure means relevant to their ends, separates them from the American primitives, who never set their sights on Parnassus, and were convinced that to work importantly they would have to work differently.

In early America, the able and energetic artists who strove to improve followed the esthetic of their time and moved quickly out of the primitive ranks. Among the best naïve paintings are early works by such men as Stuart, who became one of the world’s most expert portraitists, and Benjamin West, who succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy in London.

The careers of those who spent a lifetime as primitives were of necessity static: their output resembled a relatively low plateau broken very occasionally by a surprisingly high peak. Usually contrary intention and bungling method impeded that natural outpouring of emotion which gives naïve art validity. Only by chance, when everything happened to break in a unified direction, was an important picture created.

Among the thousands—probably tens of thousands—of primitive paintings that have been collected, there are a few hundred which have an authentic, wild beauty; that they are exceptions, sports, makes them none the less lovely. The rest of the primitive works that possess any true value fall into the realm not of the major but of the minor arts. More quaint than strong, they do not astound, they amuse; they do not dominate a wall, they decorate a room; they are not moving but charming. Their resemblance is less to a great work of literature than to a diary in which some sparkling girl wrote down, with a sincere if limited eloquence, the more acceptable tremors of a heart that beat in a society which seems picturesque because it is long dead.