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The Cult Of The Primitives

June 2024
12min read

There 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.


Since the great proliferation or schools and colleges typical of modern America has made self-education an obsolete pattern-if mature people want to learn they take “adult” education courses-part of the wonder of the primitives is that they are said to be “self-taught.” This is conceived of as a process delightful to the imagination: the painter sat down, opened the floodgates of his genius, and presto!—he had a masterpiece. The numerous sources of design that flooded America are forgotten; nor is it noticed that most primitive paintings were inspired by the academic art or the commercial prints circulating in their time. (It has been a sad day for many a collector when he has happened on the European engraving from which the “untrammelled example of American genius,” for which he paid a large price, was copied.) The close connection of the primitives with such sources keeps them from being a true folk art, comparable with that found in peasant countries where static social groups pass down, from generation to generation, forms almost independent of the styles practiced in cultural centers.

Since the Twentieth Century painters and critics who admired the primitives were at war with Nineteenth Century conceptions of art, they set the fashion of assuming that the Nineteenth Century “painters to the people” had been equally at war. A picture of American artist life is drawn in which rich, brutish, school-trained artists, who had unpatriotically submitted to the blandishments of the European academicians of the time, rode with society beauties in fine carriages to that sink of iniquity, the National Academy; while in the back streets of the cities and in the pine forests behind country towns there met in outraged indignation little protesting groups of untutored geniuses who knew, whatever the world might say, that they were the only true esthetic creators in America.


The assumption that the primitives resemble modernistic painters and represented a national democratic movement serves as a bridge between modernism and the Philistines. Furthermore, the Philistines are enchanted to discover—for in their hearts such people always yearn to be in fashion artistically—that, even if they shy away from Picasso, they are able genuinely to like many American primitives. They can preen themselves on their advanced taste, and at the same time chuckle over the Victorian lace panties of some cute little girl who was put on canvas with enough contrariness to pass as a masterpiece. Interior decorators have caught on, and a lively market exists for pictures that were a few years ago the discovery of the few.

The result has been a great diminution in the quality of the pictures collected. However ignorant they may have been of American cultural history, the pioneers of the primitives cult were people of taste; but now the label is the thing. If an object is a “primitive” it is “interesting,” in all probability “beautiful.” From this, art and antique dealers on every level have profited. The pictures appear in farm houses where they can be bought for a song, and even the humblest junkmen can recognize them because they are funny-looking. (It is amusing to price pictures in rural shops, and see that value is assessed in reverse relation to artistic effect.) The few really fine primitives bring good prices, and the rest are so numerous that they can be kept forever in stock and turned over quickly, like Currier and Ives prints, for prices a wide segment of the population can afford. If a collector likes to buy wholesale—some do—he can secure primitives almost in carload lots. As more and more people have got into the game, and the quality of the examples has plummeted, the claims by the enthusiasts have risen higher, echoed ever stronger.

However, true apotheosis did not come until word returned from Europe that art critics there agree that the primitives are the best and most typical artists of the United States. This impresses people far beyond the ordinary confines of the cult. Few take into consideration that, even as we like to think of Frenchmen as artistic and amorous, Europeans like to think of Americans as energetic and crude. To accept a knowing American picture as great would be to violate a much-cherished stereotype. Better to back our own nationalistic shouters in their contention that our greatest artists were the naïve creators of crabbed designs!

The triumph of the American primitives fad has brought its own antidote. Curiosity has been aroused, systematic research has been at last undertaken, and a body of fact has accreted that it is increasingly difficult to ignore, that cries out to be assimilated into the theories of the cultists.

At first, it was felt that what was needed was a better label: “primitives,” “folk art,” “pioneer art,” “honest American art,” and all the other phrases yet thought of carried confused connotations, but the matter would undoubtedly solidify under the right phrase. However, no agreement could be reached, and the argument moved on to the deeper question of what is a true primitive and what is not. It should be easy, since the two groups are thought of as being in violent opposition, to draw a line between natural outpourings of American genius and the baser stuff that resulted from un-American sophistication—yet agreement has again proved impossible, and many a devotee is forced to admit to himself, if only behind locked doors, that the whole matter is deucedly confusing.

However, the truth is as simple as it is destructive. The conception of American primitives is a Twentieth Century conception predicated on Twentieth Century taste. It has no validity in terms of the artists who created the pictures, of their taste, or of the periods in which they worked.

From the first years of settlement to the eruption of modernism, American art, like its counterpart in Europe, subscribed to a single, overall esthetic. The technique of the artist, it was universally agreed, should enable him to fool the eye into accepting the actual physical presence of a painted image. (American primitives who found their way to Italy made no exciting discoveries of Italian primitives, of Cimabue or Giotto; they admired Raphael.) That a picture should be abstract, should express primarily an artist’s subjective mood, this no one believed, nor did anyone argue for distortion to achieve emotional effect. If distortion existed, it resulted from a striving for realism. Animals, because of their lack of human subjectivity, were, according to popular anecdote, natural art critics. Even as the Greek sculptor Myron carved a bull that fooled several cows, so American portraitists were complimented by rumors that pet dogs tried to climb into the laps they painted.

Like their colleagues everywhere, American neophytes began with the method of expression which comes naturally to Western Man: we find it on sidewalks where children, gifted or ungifted, have scribbled. Form is limited to outline, color is added as an afterthought, shape and hue are conceived of as much for emphasis as realism. Thus, an object which the artist feels strongly about will be enlarged and painted red, whatever its natural color.

Unlike the moderns, who try to develop this manner into a mature medium of expression, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century artists tried to break with it; and they all, whether they ended up as primitives or not, judged their skill in terms of how far they had succeeded. There is no historical basis for the belief that the primitives felt themselves in opposition to men who painted more naturalistically. They felt themselves inferior.


To translate childish images into marks on two-dimensional canvas that gave a convincing impression of three-dimensional reality required ability, application and industry. If any of these were missing, early American artists moved only a short distance, making themselves eligible to be worshiped today as “folk artists.”

Most damaging, of course, was lack of ability. Thus, the most serious criticism of the primitives cult is that too often this lack is accepted as a virtue and daubs are raised to the level of collectors’ or even museum pieces.

Lack of application was less serious. In the case of amateurs, usually young ladies who undertook painting as a polite accomplishment, it made for triviality yet did not extinguish charm. As they copied engravings from drawing books or painted fruit on silk through stencils, their object was not to make an important work of art—bluestockings were not in demand as wives. However, a little originality was not frowned on, and, if the girl had fire and grace, some of it came through to the picture. But not much: neither the will nor the skill was there.

Lack of application also applied to those artisans, creators of signs and naïve likenesses, who never made the effort to go far towards an illusionistic style, and who produced the body of American primitives. The blocks that kept them from advancing further in the direction which they all regarded as upward were various, the most common undoubtedly being weakness of ambition, a willingness to walk for a lifetime the not too arduous and adequately rewarding path of craft. Others were swayed by stranger forces: thus the greatest of them all, Edward Hicks, the creator of the “Peaceable Kingdoms,” which are the acknowledged masterpieces of American primitive art, was a religious fanatic opposed on doctrinal grounds to every aspect of education and sophistication. He made signs and fireboards because it was the only way he could make a living. No more than lesser naïve artists did Hicks argue for the beauty of his output. Beauty was evil: he was ashamed to be, in the eyes of the Lord, more than “a poor old worthless insignificant painter.”


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.

The primitives are overvalued today due to irrelevant considerations that appeal particularly to our generation: a largely fortuitous resemblance to modernism; theories satisfactory to a particular brand of convoluted nationalism; the pleasure of finding some beauty and grace in unexpected places which our esthetically-minded parents ignored. A product of the historical moment, these considerations are sure to pass out of fashion. Then there will be a tremendous diving of paintings into cellar and ash can, a merciless revaluation of those that remain. The few masterpieces will move from special collections where they had been surrounded by their inferiors to galleries which house the broad flow of our best national art. Since they will seem not exotic nor out of place there, the phrase “American primitives” will be forgotten. When scholars come on it in dusty books, loud will be their laughter that the pictures thus classified were once considered the only admirable examples of American painting.


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