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Folk Art Painters of 18th Century America

Ancient art and architecture are not only for historians but for people like us who’ve always been interested in periodic art and crafts.

Folk art is culturally inclined and is the earliest form of painted artworks created by 18th century American peasants and tradespeople.

Practical, simple, and down-to-earth in its themes, and not works of professional artists, folk art—also described as “naïve art”—was painted by self-taught simple people. They had a flair for drawing and painting and the art was basically made for decorative rather than aesthetic purposes.

Folk art painters never had a formal education in art. While it doesn’t come from a formal tradition either, the ideas came from local people who were just being plain old creative. They encompassed their culture in a deep manner that reflects the traditional values of their society.

Other names used to describe folk art are:

  • Naïve art
  • Outsider art
  • Self-taught art
  • Primitive art
American Folk Artwork - The Lincoln Children

American Folk Artwork - The Lincoln Children

Beginnings of 18th Century Primitive Painting

The earliest recorded folk-art paintings of the mid-18th century were made at a time when the citizenry barely had access to artworks and paintings of the famous European artists. They developed their own style and were quite content with their ‘primitive art’ which they created to blend harmoniously with their interior furnishings.

Many of the early folk paintings are mostly anonymous as they were seldom signed by the artist who created it. Reasons being that most of them were painted by home-owners with artistic flairs, journeymen painters, and young girls in the family who had to, as a custom, study drawing and painting.

The New England, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Hudson River sections especially, were replete with beautiful picturesque and lovely landscape views that stretched unobstructed for miles. These scenes appealed to and influenced the local inhabitants' and were the inspirations they needed to show their artistic flair. All they painted were the things they viewed, worked, and lived with every day.

Though they painted mostly simple and naïve works where sketches were poorly done and colours unnatural, however, the paintings were characteristically vital; visibly showing a conscientious effort on the part of the artist to produce a "great" painting.

Famous 18th Century America Folk Art Painters

Even as several painters still remain anonymous, the documented and well-known folk artists of the time include the following native art painters:

  1. Joshua Johnson (1763 to 1824) – A black American native art painter of prominent Maryland residents. One of his famous paintings ‘The Westwood Children’ is on display at the National Gallery of Art
  2. Rufus Hathaway (1770 to 1822) – a physician and folk-art portrait painter. He also painted landscapes and over mantles. His famous works include one of his earliest works ‘Lady with Her Pet’ and ‘A View of Mr Joshua Winsor's House’.
  3. Eunice Pinney (1770 to 1822) – A famous American folk artist in Connecticut. She is one of the first folk artists to work in the watercolour medium. Her notable works include ‘Couple and a Casualty’. Her watercolour works include memorial scenes, portraits, landscapes, and religious and historical chronicles.
  4. Edward Hicks (1780 to 1849 – A distinguished minister of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and famous folk-art painter. Artworks include ‘The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch’, ‘The Residence of David Twining’, and ‘The Landing of Columbus’.
  5. Ammi Phillips (1788 to 1865) – An itinerant portrait artist and one of America's most prolific folk-art painters, his most famous work is ‘Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog’.
  6. Milton W Hopkins (1789 to 1844) – An early 19th century portraitists, one of his famous oil on canvas paintings is ‘Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Fancy Yellow-Ribboned Lace Bonnet’ He also did oil paintings on wood. Most of his models were educated and comfortable people who chose to have their portraits painted in a plain simple style.
  7. Erastus Salisbury Field (1805 to 1900) – Born in Massachusetts, Field was a famous American folk-art painter of portraits, landscapes, and historical chronicles. Notable among his paintings are ‘Joseph Moore and His Family’, ‘Lady of Squire Williams House’, and ‘Elizabeth Billings Ashley’.
  8. C. C. A. Christensen (1832 to 1912) – A Danish-American painter, he is best known for his series of paintings ‘Mormon Panorama’, that illustrates the history of the church, and ‘Nephi and Zoram Return with the Record’.
  9. Alfred Wallis (1855 to 1942) – He was a self-taught native artist and a fisherman who painted mostly on cardboard ripped from packing boxes, with a limited palette of paint bought from ships' chandlers (a ship’s store). His work, ‘The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach’ is displayed in the Tate Gallery.
  10. Bill Traylor (1856 to 1949) – An African-American folk artist, Traylor’s drawings in pared-down repeated symbols, shapes, and figures depict his experiences and observations from rural and urban life. His works include images of people, plants, animals, and local landmarks. Many of his paintings are unnamed. When he died in 1949, he left behind over a thousand drawings, many of them given away to passers-by.
  11. John Kane (1860 to 1934) - He was the first self-taught contemporary folk artist to be recognized by a museum in the 20th century. He painted landscapes and self-portraits, including his famous works are ‘Boys Fishing, ‘Children at Play’, and ‘Scene in the Scottish Highlands’ that now hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art.
  12. Grandma Moses (1860 to 1961) – She was a famous folk-art painter who began painting at the age of 78 years, a manifestation of her childhood dream. Moses painted scenes of rural life but omitted features of modern life like tractors and telephone poles. Some of her notable artworks are ‘Autumn in the Berkshires’, ‘Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey’, ‘Christmas’, and ‘Grandma Moses Goes to the Big City’.
  13. William Edmondson (1870 to 1951) – He was born the son of two former slaves, with little or no formal education. He is known for his sculpture works which he started at age sixty by working on tombstones which he sold or gave to friends and family. He also carved lawn ornaments, birdbaths, figures from the Bible, and decorative sculptures, working primarily with chunks of discarded limestone from demolished buildings.
  14. Clementine Hunter (1887 to 1988) – A self-taught folk-art painter who lived most of her life on a plantation in Louisiana. Her paintings illustrated the hard plantation work, religion, social, and recreational lives of the people who lived around her. Nicknamed the Black Grandma Moses, her famous works include ‘Mary and Angels’, ‘Funeral Procession’, and ‘Picking Cotton’.
  15. Horace Pippin (1888 to 1946) – Pippin was also a self-taught African-American painter who got his inspiration to paint from the injustices of slavery and black segregation. His folk paintings prominently featured such prejudices in many of his works which were mainly landscapes, portraits, scenes of everyday life, American historical events, and religious themes. Paintings include’ John Brown Going to his Hanging’ and his first oil painting, ‘The End of the War: Starting Home’.
American Folk Art

American Folk Art

Subjects of Folk-Art Paintings

Most folk art produced by the 18th-century artists had every conceivable subject that could be imagined at the time but the most common themes, many of them collector’s items used in today's informal interior settings, include:

  • Village scenes
  • City scenes
  • Landscapes
  • Churches and important public structures
  • Seascapes
  • Portraits
  • Farmhouse scenes
  • Military wars
  • Naval battles
  • Horse-racing scenes
  • Religious groups

Today, these artworks are great representations of a definite era of American art and culture. Modern painters may have capitalized on the crudity of these early styles of paintings, but the simplicity and authenticity of the paintings tell of a history of honest representations and attempts at producing simple natural art by simple honest people.

The early folk paintings were produced massively with variations in technical proficiency, an evidence that shows their lack of knowledge of perspective. For example, faces appeared disproportionate with the bodies and legs were drawn too short for the torsos.

Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice. A folk art painting by C.C.A. Christensen (1878)

Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice. A folk art painting by C.C.A. Christensen (1878)

7 Famous Primitive Paintings

  1. "The Westwood Children" (painted by Joshua Johnson in 1807)
  2. "The Home of David Twining" (painted by Edward Hicks)
  3. "Harriet Leavens" (painted by Ammi Phillips in 1830)
  4. "Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey" (painted by Grandma Moses in 1943)
  5. "A Beautiful World" (painted by Grandma Moses in 1948)
  6. "Domino Players" (painted by Horace Pippin)
  7. "Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice" (painted by C.C.A. Christensen)

Difference Between Fine Art and Folk Art

The major difference between fine art and folk art lies in the cultural aspect. While fine art is taught and learned through rigorous formal instructions and training by a professional artist and focuses more on value and aesthetics, folk art, which is self-taught is a form of art that embraces a culture in a “deep” manner.

Additionally, fine art is done in a mechanical manner and is made through specific methods, while folk art is developed and done, creating a new formal painting tradition for people to follow.


Interior Design and Decoration by Sherrill Whiton

Art Cyclopedia

Further Reading

When Did Humans Start Creating Art? - Prehistoric Cave Art

Medieval Art and Architecture (Ancient Art Forms of the Middle Ages)

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