Folk Art, carvings, paintings, needlework, decorated utensils, and other artifacts created by artists and artisans—often anonymous—who have no formal academic training in the arts. Folk art has existed in every culture, past and present. Of necessity, this article is restricted to folk art in North America produced by colonists and émigrés from Europe and Africa and by native Americans working in European styles. For the folk art of other cultures, see African Art and Architecture; Native Americans: Crafts and the Arts; Furniture; Glass; Inuit; Lace; Log Cabin; Mask; Needlework; Oceanian Art and Architecture; Pottery; Quilting; Silhouette; Stencil; Tattooing; Wood Carving.
Carved Native American Figure This figure of a Native American trapper was carved from a single pine log (about 1850-1890). The figure is not that of the typical “cigar store Indian.” The unknown artist chose to dress his trapper in the buckskin pants, suspenders, shirt, and hat commonly worn by white trappers and frontiersmen. The decorative wooden pieces attached to the figure’s legs and arms were originally plugs for bottles and jugs.Smithsonian American Art Museum/Art Resource, NY
The Western world has long distinguished between the highly structured teachings of the academies that produce the fine arts and the orally transmitted traditional arts, created by and for the artistically less sophisticated. In the conservative view held by many folklorists, for a work to qualify as folk art it must be part of a long-standing tradition, must be learned from an active practitioner, and its genre, style, and technique should be those of an isolated culture, such as that of the Amish or whalers.
In fine art the idiosyncratic is admired, whereas anonymity of style is characteristic of folk art...
In the United States and Canada the concept of folk art is far less restrictive. In the normal usage of museums, dealers, collectors, and the general public the key word is nonacademic—art that has developed outside, but not necessarily uninfluenced by, the arts taught in art schools. In fine art the idiosyncratic generally is admired, whereas anonymity of style is characteristic of folk art, in that it expresses an aesthetic for a specific group that includes the artist and the artist’s immediate audience.
Included in this broader concept current in America are such products as were created by teams of workers: circus-wagon carvings, carousel figures, and manufactured weather vanes. Paintings by artists of little or no training are included; many of the paintings in collections of folk art, however, are by artists with an awareness of academic mannerisms either through prints, an occasional viewing of an academic painting, or chapbooks (small books or pamphlets) on painting, such as those written by Rufus Porter (see below). Also included in the broader concept are the works that were produced by young people in seminaries and academies, such as memorials, needlework pictures, and calligraphic pictures.
An inclusive definition, then, of what is generally understood to be folk art in North America includes both traditional folk arts handed down from one individual to another—such as frakturs (illuminated writings), quilts, and scrimshaw—and other nonacademic objects that might be called associative folk arts. Such nonacademic objects have been included, for all practical purposes, in the literature and in the exhibitions of folk art for more than half a century. Often in this latter group are portraits sometimes designated as provincial, naive, or vernacular.
Another distinction is that between folk art and craft. If the utility of a work predominates, then it is a craft object; if decoration predominates, then it is an example of folk art.
II CANADIAN FOLK ART
In general, the same types of folk art are found on either side of the Canadian-U.S. border. There are differences, however, in style and emphasis that are derived from the differences in historical development.
A French-Canadian Folk Art
Obviously, the oldest traditions are in Québec and other French communities. As early as 1670, under the sponsorship of Bishop François de Laval, a school was founded near Québec where carving, painting, and other crafts were taught to the sons of the habitants (French settlers). Although its primary purpose was to provide art for the churches, it seems to have nurtured a carving tradition that survives to this day.
The predominant theme in Canadian folk carving is religious, especially the crucifix intended for the family shrine, but there is a considerable body of minisculpture, predominantly of birds and animals. The carving of animals may well have derived from the animals made for the crèches that were popular both inside and outside the homes. One ubiquitous figure is, of course, the beaver, symbol of Canada, which appears as a decorative element on a wide variety of objects and as a subject of carving in life-size. Carvings, usually of pine, were often painted in bright colors, reflecting the exuberant use of color inside and outside the French-Canadian home. In contrast, the figures on the crucifixes were often painted with a white finish similar to enamel.
... wide woven belts that young Native American women were taught to weave by Ursuline nuns.
The weather vane is still seen on country churches and barns. Most often it is in the form of a cock, either of wood or tin, but made in the round rather than in flat profile. Three other forms of folk art are common and characteristically French-Canadian: the small carved wooden pipes that go back to the days of the voyageurs; the carved molds for maple sugar, with such designs as maple leaves, snowshoes, and abstractions; and the handsome flèches—wide woven belts, colored by natural dyes, that young Native American women were taught to weave by Ursuline nuns. The overall spirit of French-Canadian folk art is colorful, happy, and, at the same time, devout.
B Anglo-Canadian Folk Art
The English tradition in the Maritime provinces is strong in the decoration of utilitarian objects, in graining, marbling, and incising, and in ship carvings (both figureheads and stern-board decorations). The emigration to Canada of many New Englanders during and after the American Revolution led to interesting similarities between eastern Canadian and New England arts, not only in ship carving but also in quilt patterns, hooked rugs, and full-scale sculptures. Such sculptures have been an especially strong tradition in Nova Scotia, continuing to the present time. The Anglo-Canadian Atlantic seaboard also seems to have produced a livelier painting tradition—mostly seascapes and ship portraits—than did French Québec.
C Swiss and German Folk Art
Ontario received many Empire Loyalists at the time of the Revolution, and they were soon followed by Swiss and German immigrants, mostly members of Amish, Mennonite, and other austere sects. Some came from Pennsylvania, but others came directly from Europe. In either case, they kept their own carefully circumscribed cultures intact, continuing and developing the colorful creation of frakturs of all types—birth and wedding certificates, religious texts, and merit awards—which were hardly known to the outside world until recently. They also kept alive a vigorous needlework tradition, including quilting and crocheting.
D Other European Folk Art
Like the western U.S., the Prairie provinces of Canada were settled late. They attracted not only Anglo-Canadians but also a wide variety of peoples from central and eastern Europe: Russian Doukhobors in Saskatchewan and Ukrainians throughout the Prairie provinces. Among these 20th-century pioneers a sprightly painting tradition developed, some of it depicting memories of earlier times in Europe, but far more often depicting the vast prairies and pioneer life. These paintings, naive and explicit, have a direct and sometimes powerful impact.
Derived from many ethnic groups and extending over three centuries, Canadian folk art is varied and handsome. The collection and exhibition of folk art has only recently come into its own in Canada, and it is likely that much Canadian folk art remains to be discovered.
III U.S. FOLK ART
Folk art created by settlers in the U.S. distinctly reflects the cultures of at least eight European countries—England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, Norway, Sweden, and Spain—and of many nations on the African continent (see American Art and Architecture).
A English Influences
Painted Wood Figurehead This is a painted wood figurehead from early 19th-century England and was probably used on a military vessel. This piece and others like it had an influence on the figureheads made in the United States, although this one is much more elaborate than its American counterparts.
Although the history of English and Scottish folklore collecting dates from Samuel Pepys in the 17th century, and folklore was vigorously collected throughout the 19th century, almost no attention was paid to British folk art until recently. As a result, few collections of folk art are available in Great Britain with which to make comparisons to American colonial folk art. Such items as trade signs—both two-dimensional paintings and polychromed carvings—were a commonplace in Great Britain in the 17th century and were well established in the American colonies by the 18th century. The English tobacco-shop “black boys” are known to have influenced the early tobacco trade signs in America. Figureheads were a commonplace in Europe, but the predominance of British shipping in American ports unquestionably influenced U.S. wood sculptors who made stern-board carvings and figureheads. By the 19th century, American and British ship carvings were sometimes indistinguishable except for the figureheads depicting national heroes, and the American tendency toward greater simplicity.
... the women’s carved wooden busks (corset stays) were the undoubted precursors of...
British sources are easily recognizable in household folk art. Stenciling and an occasional fully painted wall were known in rural England, and the women’s carved wooden busks (corset stays) were the undoubted precursors of American scrimshaw busks of the great days of whaling. Carved buttermolds and some carving on other household utensils were part of the British tradition, but such carvings were better known on the Continent. British women coming to America brought needlework techniques that influenced their quilting, knitting, and crewel work. The rash of memorial pieces, both in needlework and watercolor, that sprang up after the death of George Washington in 1799 utilized motifs—the urn, the weeping willow, the church, and the mourning family—that had already been popular in Great Britain for some time. From the evidence currently available, the British seem not to have had a strong folk tradition of either portrait or genre painting; their influence was primarily in woodcarving and needlecrafts.
B Dutch Influences
The Dutch in the upper Hudson Valley brought with them the enthusiasm for painting that had made 17th-century Dutch art one of the cultural achievements of the age.
In the first half of the 18th century merchant families happily patronized provincial painters of Dutch and English origin for portraits. The names of the 150 or so sitters for these portraits have been known for many years, but the names of the artists are only just now beginning to surface: They include John Heaton, Nehemiah Partridge, and Pieter Vanderlyn, among others as yet unidentified. In many cases the poses and the decorative elements are borrowed directly from English mezzotints of the works of court painters of the previous century. The result, however, is anything but courtly: The portraits have a blunt directness about the faces, a joy in bright colors, a woodenness of the figures that mark them as the work of painters operating outside the fine-arts tradition.
Presumably, some of these same painters turned out the religious paintings, based on woodcuts in Dutch family Bibles, that were noted by several 18th-century visitors to the Albany region. Today, 38 such paintings have come to light, and for about half of these, the source is known.
The contribution of the Dutch to American folk art lay primarily in their enthusiasm for painting and their encouragement of colonial artists.
C “Pennsylvania Dutch” Influences
Pennsylvania Dutch Watercolor This Pennsylvania Dutch watercolor was painted about 1800 by an anonymous artist. It was probably intended to be a fraktur, or a reward-of-merit card given to students to commend academic merit or good behavior. The bird was most likely based on real birds that the artist saw every day.Scala/Art Resource, NY
The “Pennsylvania Dutch” were actually Germans, Swiss, Hollanders, and Moravians of German stock. Although many were members of pietistic sects—Amish, Mennonites, Dunkers—others were orthodox Lutherans. Industrious and pious, they secluded themselves (the pietists in particular) from external social and political affairs, followed their traditional ways, and maintained and nourished the folk arts they brought from Europe. Perhaps more than any other immigrant group they fulfilled the folklorists’ vision of an isolated people maintaining their own folkways against all inducements to do otherwise.
The common denominator among most of the Pennsylvania Dutch folk arts is a strong delight in color. Their fraktur manuscripts were painted in bright greens, yellows, oranges, Prussian blues, and reds. The same colors dominated their quilts, pottery, toleware, barn signs, and painted chests; even their delicious traditional foods were brightly colorful. Only their graceful metalwork lacked color—a deficit amply compensated for by strength of design.
Throughout these arts is woven a body of visual symbolism derived from the Bible, hymns, and sermons: the Tree of Life, the phoenix to symbolize death and resurrection, the self-sacrificing pelican (representing Christ), the tulip, the unicorn, hearts, parrots, peacocks, and symbols representing the sun. Typically associated with frakturs, many of these motifs also appear on quilts, on marriage chests, and in the carvings on domestic implements, creating a lively sense of image and color. The European art of wood carving flourished not only among the 18th-century Pennsylvania settlers and their descendants, but also among the immigrants of the following century. Among the latter were two carvers who came to be widely appreciated long after they were dead: Wilhelm Schimmel, admired for his whittled eagles, and John Scholl, a house carpenter, whose freestanding colorful celebrations are unique in the U.S.
D Norwegian and Swedish Influences
Despite the vigorous folk-art traditions in Scandinavia, the overall impact on American folk art of immigrants from northern Europe was relatively slight. Only recently have institutions such as the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and the Bishop Hill State Historic Site at Bishop Hill, Illinois, offered insight into these transplanted cultures. Each has added the name of one master to the list of American folk artists.
Lars Christenson arrived from Norway as a pioneer settler in Swift County, Minnesota, cleared his own land, built his own homes, served as a government employee, and helped to found the local Lutheran church. Like so many of his compatriots, however, his greatest satisfaction came from carving. He carved boxes and furniture for his own house, but in 1897 he began work on an intricately carved altarpiece (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum), 365.7 cm (12 ft) high by 304 cm (10 ft) wide. Using a great variety of woods, which he left unpainted, he merged his boyhood memories of Viking and Norwegian design with simplified versions of the French artist Gustave Doré’s biblical scenes. Like its counterparts in many churches on the west coast of Norway, it is a tripartite and tiered altar, embellished with carved flowers and angel heads. The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci) and a crucifix with the two thieves occupy the center. This is one of the masterpieces of religious folk art made in America, symbolizing not only the religious sincerity of the carver but also the tradition of Scandinavian carving from which it derives.
Olaf Krans was born in Sweden and came to Bishop Hill, Illinois, with his parents in 1850. There they joined a religious commune of other Swedes. During his youth Krans watched (and remembered) how the prairie was broken, how the men and women sowed and reaped, how the settlers created a special enclave of their own on the rolling, fertile prairies. The paintings he began to create in his 50s are a remarkable record of one of America’s many utopian settlements in the years of its original enthusiasm. The long rows of planters and sowers, of reapers and gatherers, convey a sense of unity and dedication. Krans also did a gallery of portraits of the original settlers. Most are based on photographs, but he imparted to each portrait an insight drawn from his recollections and far surpassed the photograph in depiction of character.
Krans’s paintings are outside the mainstream of Swedish immigrant folk art, which, like that of the Norwegians, stressed woodcarving. Essentially this was a domestic art, its practitioners creating fine carved spoons, chairs, cupboards, and wooden boxes. Genre scenes in minisculpture reflect the life of the farm or lumber camp but were intended for the carver’s own home.
E Hispanic Influences
Wooden Polychrome Crucifix Many folk art expressions of Hispanic origin or influence are religious in character and exhibit similar distinctive features. The basic stylistic characteristics of the 17th-century wooden polychrome crucifix shown here, for instance, are typical of Hispanic folk art. The figure is elongated and simplified, and strong graphic details define the face, which effectively conveys emotion.Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
The Hispanic traditions come from two directions, the Southwest and Puerto Rico, and their most striking products are religious. New Mexico was generally neglected by Mexico after 1750, as routes going north bypassed it. It was then that local santeros (“saint carvers”) began to carve holy figures, bultos, for the isolated churches of the countryside. At the same time painters were developing a characteristic style of retablos (“altar paintings”). Stylistically, the carvings reverted to the first half of the 17th century, echoing the works of Andalusian followers of the Spanish sculptors Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro de Meña. The bultos were of wood, the figures elongated, with strong graphic devices in faces and bodies. They convey an intensity of feeling that, even at a much later date and in a different culture, are gripping.
The retablos, although less impressive, are aesthetically attractive. Flatness characterizes them—little attempt is made to convey any sense of depth or roundness. The spaces are filled in with decorative details, and frequently the frame is painted. The aesthetic sources for the retablos are a century more recent than those of the bultos; they can be traced back to the followers of the Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, painters who turned out devotional images for the New World.
Puerto Rico has a tradition of life-size religious figures, but more typical are the santos for the house shrine. Representing a person’s birth saint or the patron saint of a village, these figures are seldom more than 30 cm (12 in) high and are often smaller. They were made either by professional santeros or by the most skilled member of a family, and the carver invested meticulous care to ensure that the saint’s identifying symbol was made clear.
Although the santos were originally polychromed, many of the older ones that have long been handled and cherished have lost their paint and grown dark with age.
F African Influences
... veins of African culture: basketry, musical instruments, quilts, ceramics, wood sculpture...
The earlier assumption that when slaves were brought to the United States from Africa they came culturally empty-handed has now been exploded. The contributions of African tradition in work songs, blues, jazz, in certain musical instruments (the banjo, for example), and in folk narrative were beginning to be recognized in the 1930s. Only in the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, were the more subtle relationships to African visual arts identified. This recognition came partly as a result of long-overdue unified study of the areas of American folk art that most clearly reveal veins of African culture: basketry, musical instruments, quilts, ceramics, wood sculpture, ironwork, and grave decorations.
Of these, certainly woodcarving is the most widespread. Carved canes with snakes and alligators climbing up toward the handle, which was frequently a human head, are popular and are still being made. Plenty of other examples of carved figures and architectural carvings that spread across the South are also available: a cigar-store figure dated about 1800, a carved “throne” for a Presbyterian church, and any number of examples of minisculpture. They add up to a distinctive segment of American folk art, and all contain strong African echoes.
IV FORMS OF FOLK ART
North American folk art was expressed in a variety of forms: painting, in both portraiture and landscape; carving, in stone, wood, metal, and ivory; pottery in profusion; and needlework, ranging from quilts and samplers to embroidered pictures.
Ever since the first major museum exhibits of American folk paintings and sculptures, in the 1930s, nearly all collections of American folk art have included both paintings and three-dimensional materials. (In a few collections, the paintings are classified under the labels naive or primitive instead of being identified as folk art.)
Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary Few American artists of the 1600s are known by name. One talented but unknown painter produced this portrait of maternal concern, Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, in Massachusetts about 1674.Burstein Collection/Corbis
Because portraits were associated with family-oriented antiques and genealogy, they attracted attention long before other types of folk art. As early as the 1670s, New England portraitists, often called limners, were painting in an English vernacular style that dated from Tudor times. The best examples are those by the Gibbs and Mason limner (flourished late 17th century), who painted stiff representations of little girls and boys; and the Freake limner (flourished late 17th century), who painted the double portrait, Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary (circa 1674, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts), both beautifully gowned in a manner quite contrary to the popular conception of Puritan dress.
Only after the American Revolution, however, did American portraiture—both academic and nonacademic—flourish. In the 60 years between the end of the American Revolution and the importation of photography to America, the London studio of the American expatriate painter Benjamin West became the great center for the training of American academic painters. For every American who went abroad to study, however, scores of sign painters, decorators, and glaziers in the U.S. felt their craftmanship entitled them to try their hands at portraits. With limited awareness of the traditions of academic portraiture, they set out to solve in their own ways such technical and aesthetic problems as perspective, proportion, and composition, often with inventive and striking results. Their emphasis was on the face, and they sought above all to achieve an accurate likeness.
Portrait of a Young Man This watercolor, Portrait of a Young Man, was painted in the 18th century, before the American Revolution. The artist may have been Robert Peckham, of Massachusetts. The style is closer to folk art than to the more sophisticated works of many of the painters of the Hudson River valley, and in fact it may have been created by a self-taught artist.Art Resource, NY
Many of these portrait painters were itinerants who went from one small town to another, putting up for a few days at a local inn. Because some of them repeatedly used the same pose and may have carried a handsome dress to lend their sitters, the misconception arose and was supported by early writers that in the winter artists painted bodies and then, when they found a client, added the head to the unfinished work. No canvas with a headless body has yet come to light, however, and no mention of such has appeared in any inventory of an artist’s estate.
New England, especially Connecticut, seems to have led in this popular movement to “get one’s likeness taken,” which soon spread to the mid-Atlantic states, although it was never popular in the South. The usual explanation is that the South never developed a significant middle class—the primary clientele of these nonacademic painters. With the invention of photography in 1839 and its immediate appearance in the U.S., came a rapid decline in portrait painting; a photograph was quicker and cheaper. Many of the painters became photographers themselves.
Limited space prohibits a catalog of the leading folk portraitists, but brief information about several can suggest how varied a group they were. For example, Joshua Johnston was one of the few black artists of the time; Ruth Henshaw Bascom was a clergyman’s wife; Deborah Goldsmith was a central New York itinerant who eventually married one of her sitters. John Brewster was a deaf mute, and Joseph W. Stock lived his adult life in a wheelchair but managed a wide-ranging itinerant career. James Sanford Ellsworth worked mostly in watercolor miniatures, with little clouds of glory behind the heads of his sitters, and, like a number of American folk artists, died in an almshouse. Finally, Ammi Phillips, who worked in the Hudson Valley, western Massachusetts, and Connecticut, developed at least three successive styles to meet the changing taste of his time; ironically, single paintings by Phillips today bring sums far larger than he earned in a long and arduous career.
Portraiture was the most rewarding practice financially, but artists also painted landscapes, scenes of everyday life, and historical and religious subjects. The majority of folk painters of landscapes were copyists, using prints as their models, but other itinerants—such as Paul Seifert and Fritz G. Vogt—specialized in farm scenes, or, more accurately, in portraits of farms. Joseph Hidley was a genuine landscapist who painted charming scenes of his own village of Poestenkill, New York, and of neighboring towns. The great religious painter, Edward Hicks, depicted again and again (about 40 versions are extant) his sermon of the lion and lamb lying down together—his famous Peaceable Kingdom paintings—despite the negative attitude of his fellow Quakers toward art.
A3 Genre Scenes
School Scene, Pennsylvania Folk artists often create genre scenes, or images of everyday life. This genre painting, depicting children at a schoolhouse, was painted around 1920 by American folk artist J. C. Huntington. It is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.Smithsonian American Art Museum/Art Resource, NY
The tendency of the naive artist to depict everything in great detail is of especial value when the genres, the scenes of everyday life, are considered. Often the paintings become historical documents filling in the lacunae left by the historian. Linton Park’s logging scenes and his Flax Scutching Bee are invaluable for conveying not only the facts but also the spirit of simple work situations. The black painter Clementine Hunter reflects far more than life on a cotton plantation; she conveys the moods of such a place. Another contemporary, Queena Stovall, depicts the seasons, the labors, and the rites of passage on a Virginia Piedmont farm as she experienced them.
A4 Decorative Painting
Many of the portraitists who started out as decorators and sign painters were multitalented artisans. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, decorative stencils were used on the walls of rooms, floors, and furniture. Graining and marbling made simple pine look like far more expensive materials such as mahogany, oak, or imported marble. Most elaborate were the murals that covered all the walls of a room, with high mountains, ship-filled rivers, waterfalls, and companies of militia. Rufus Porter, a man of many skills, wrote a booklet on how to do all these things. When he founded the publication Scientific American in 1846, he expanded his earlier work to a series of 31 instructional articles; they covered everything from carriage painting to “Landscape Paintings on the Walls of Rooms.” Porter’s approach was neither aesthetic nor philosophical, but down-to-earth, to help his readers make a good living.
America’s first sculptors... carved thedeath’s-heads, angels, and hearts and flowers on early gravestones.
Folk artists worked in many other media besides paint, the earliest being stone. America’s first sculptors were the stonecutters who carved the death’s-heads, angels, and hearts and flowers on early gravestones. With the exception of the religiously inspired carver William Edmondson, most later folk carvers have worked in wood.
B1 Wood Carving
All along the northern coast where ships were built, wood carvers, working closely with the ship architects, designed, carved, and painted the figureheads that gave each ship its individuality. As wooden ships disappeared from the seas, the carvers turned to making trade signs, especially tobacco signs—life-size Native Americans, Scots, ladies of fashion, and the like. By the last half of the 19th century these and the elaborate figures for circus wagons were being carved in large establishments where the product was no longer the creation of one carver but of many. For that reason, the later carvings are regarded as examples of associative folk art rather than of traditional folk art.
The same change in manufacture took place with weather vanes. The early examples in wood or metal were the products of one person’s imagination and skills, but by the end of the century they were produced by industrial plants; the only part of these later weather vanes that could be considered traditional folk art would be the original carvings from which the molds were cast. The most popular subjects for weather vanes were, again, Native Americans, but also horses, fish, and other animals, including, of course, roosters in all shapes and sizes.
Scrimshaw The art of scrimshaw originated with sailors who employed this pastime to while away their spare time at sea. This piece depicts a whaling scene, a common motif in this folk art. Scrimshaw involves engraving a design on polished ivory with a sharp tool and then filling in the lines with ink. Today, scrimshanders, as they are called, use only fossilized ivory, and the industry is carefully monitored to make sure no one is using ivory from endangered species.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
By and large, the metal objects of folk art were utilitarian, but with strong decorative elements: implements with incised designs, lighting fixtures, and the weather vanes. The medium that really permitted the imagination of the folk artist to explode was work in ivory—the teeth and bones of whales—called scrimshaw. In moments of leisure aboard ship, whalers incised whale teeth with a wide variety of images and sentiments, patriotic, religious, erotic. They made scenes of their hazardous occupation on both teeth and bones; they also made busks for their women to wear inside their chemises, and thousands of pie crimpers, birdcages, clothespins, toys, swifts (yarn reels), walking sticks, and many other objects of use and beauty.
Although potteries were primarily engaged in turning out everyday ceramics for dining or storage, a small percentage of items exist in which the decorative elements outrank the utilitarian. For example, the redware dishes in the Pennsylvania Dutch German tradition, were enlivened with slipware designs and mottoes. Many of the stoneware potters painted blue designs on their jugs, jars, and coolers, offering two sources of pleasure in the shape of the object and in its decoration. The face jugs—black with white teeth and eyes—have recognizable African roots and often were made by black potters. Both supporters and opponents of the temperance movement expressed their points of view with jugs on which snakes had been molded before firing. Quite recently, individualized sculptural ceramics from sewer-tile factories have been discovered in Ohio, Michigan, and New York. These pieces should not be confused with those ceramic pieces from a mold, on which the touch of the artist is obscured.
Few women were portrait painters, but many were taught theorem and fancy painting in female seminaries. Women’s major contribution to American folk art, however, was in the realm of needlework.
In the colonial and early national periods girls were taught at a very early age a variety of stitches, including embroidered letters; these stitches, formed into a sampler, a kind of needlework diploma, proved the skills learned, with the name of the pupil and the date completed.
Welsh Patchwork Quilt This patchwork, or pieced, quilt from Wales was made in the early 19th century. The process involves sewing pieces of cloth edge to edge and then sewing the resulting piece to several other layers of cloth using a quilting stitch. The use of geometric design was common, and these patterns had to be planned out mathematically. Quilts made in the United States were often signed by the quilter.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Women also cut and sewed the pieces of colored cloth that formed the designs of quilts. This work involved considerable mathematical comprehension and understanding of the nature of textiles, especially for the pieced quilt, in which the pattern was built up entirely from small bits of cloth (in contrast to the appliquéd quilt, in which a large cloth served as a ground for stitched-on patterns). During a time when all art was representational, women in rural America were creating thousands of examples of abstract art that can compete admirably with the abstract paintings of the present time. Since the early 1970s, many museums and art galleries have exhibited quilts as abstract art, thereby emphasizing the similarity in artistic aim.
D3 Embroidered Pictures
The needlework pictures that schoolgirls and young women created between the Revolution and the 1840s were often biblical scenes or memorials, generally embroidered in silk. Most of the picture was usually created with colored threads, with some details, such as faces, added in watercolor.
The thousands of Americans in Canada and the U.S. who have created this great body of aesthetically pleasing nonacademic art have left those countries greatly in their debt. Not only for their contemporaries but also for later generations, their works have amply fulfilled their primary objective—to give pleasure.
Major collections of folk art are at the Museum of Man in Ottawa, Ontario; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia; the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York; and the Museum of American Folk Art, New York City. So-called primitive or naive paintings from a major collection, the Garbisch Collection, are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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