Thursday, January 16, 2014

American Primitive

Pennsylvania German painted box
Maybe it's a trunk. The out-of-scale painting with looming tulips makes it
hard for us to visualize the box's exact size.

While European artists were looking to African and Oceanic art for fresh ideas, a few American collectors began to appreciate American primitive arts. American primitive came to mean naive European-style arts rather than the works of the continents's indigenous peoples.

Mayan Bowl
North American basket

The arts of the indigenous peoples might be classified as Pre-Columbian or Tribal Arts...

 The child is holding
a boy's toy---therefore he is a boy.

while American Primitive came to refer to untrained or folk artists. One aspect defining American primitive is a lack of perspective---ignorance of Renaissance perspective techniques.

In the primitive portrait above the artist knows nothing about linear perspective and the vanishing point. To make the child look as if he were standing on the rug, the rug needs to be redrawn at angles with lines leading to a vanishing point, a trick we take for granted.

Visitor to Niagara Falls 1835

Primitive painters often do not use vanishing point perspective and don't make objects in the distance smaller to give the illusion that they are further away. Primitive compositions often have what Renaissance draftsmen would consider problems of perspective. This lack of conventional trickery is charming to us with our more "sophisticated" eye. We know Niagara Falls is much bigger than the man.

Thomas Cole
View of Mount Holyoke, 1836
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cole is definitely not an American primitive. He understood how to present the illusion of what the eye sees in a vast landscape. 

See more about Cole's painting at the Museum site:

The recent David Hockney exhibit at San Francisco's DeYoung Museum theorizes that artists learned those skills by tracing early photographs (from the pinhole camera obscura.) Basic principles include a vanishing point perspective, reducing the relative size of objects further away and decreasing color values and details in the distance. 

Detail of the Berks County Almshouse by John Rasmussen,
1881. Collection of the Fenimore Museum.

Rasmussen understood some of Renaissance perspective, but had not mastered the tricks. He was familiar with the idea of lines vanishing to a point in the distance but he uses that grid in awkward fashion. He did not decrease the relative size of the buildings in a convincing manner. The detail in the distant building on the almshouse grounds is as complex as in the closest. While he muted the color values in the very distant hills, his composition has little of the hazy background we take for granted in landscapes. Bright color makes this piece look quite cheery, even though it represents an asylum for the poor and insane.

Read more about Rasmussen's painting on the Museum's blog.

And more about Hockney's theories on the pinhole camera here:

Hooked Rug, early 20th century.

Hooked Rug, early 20th century.
Note the upside down L in Love.

Needlework with hand-drawn pattern often encompasses the most charming aspects of primitive art such as skewed perspective, simple repeating shapes, and pattern filling every empty space. 

A masterpiece of American primitive, an appliqued picture
 recently sold at Skinner's.

If price were not an object, would you rather have Thomas Cole's landscape hanging in the living room or the appliqued picture above?


  1. I'd rather have the applique, by far. A lot of people mock and deride primitive style, especially the American "non-ethnic" example that doesn't have the virtue of originating in another culture long ago and far away. It's nice that a number of quilters do appreciate the look of this early work.

  2. Well, if price were no object, I would have to take both! I love the charm of the applique quilt with all the animals and birds, but the painting is so beautiful--I can almost feel the misty storm rolling in.

  3. Wow, how interesting! I would never have associated these with Barbara - nothing like her sculptures! I love them almost as much as her sculptures.

  4. Wow, how interesting! I would never have associated these with Barbara - nothing like her sculptures! I love them almost as much as her sculptures.

    Offer Waterman & Co.