Folk art, by definition, develops outside the mainstream. Its artists are self-taught, and they create without regard for the tastes of critics, curators, or wealthy collectors. This lends a freshness to the work, which bears the promise of aesthetic integrity unspoiled by intellectualism and over-schooling.
But it’s exactly this authenticity that makes folk art such an attractive influence for the mainstream. And indeed established artists have been appropriating and incorporating the styles and themes of untrained artists since the turn of the 20th Century.
American Folk Art, American Modernism
The “discovery” of American folk art was a modernist project. The founding of the Summer School of Graphic Arts in the rural fishing village of Ogunquit, Maine, in 1911, brought many big-city luminaries in touch for the first time with rural New England and its fishing shacks, weathervanes, “primitive” portraits, and hooked rugs. In 1926, New York City art dealer Edith Halpert summered in Ogunquit, and met artists working to incorporate folk traditions and motifs. Five years later she would found the American Folk Art Gallery–the first of its kind–in Greenwich Village.
The painter Charles Sheeler is sometimes credited with founding American modernism, but his longtime ownership of a farmhouse in Doylestown, PA exposed him to historic local artists like the folk painter and Quaker preacher of the early 1800s, Edward Hicks. Some see in Hicks’ paintings–many of which focus on religious themes–an early anticipation of cubism, and its knack for presenting multiple perspectives on the same plane. His work also likely influenced the nonacademic style of Sheeler’s Bucks County barn series.
But the early 20th Century art world also took an interest in contemporary folk artists like Grandma Moses. She worked as a housekeeper and cook for a wealthy family in the Shenandoah Valley, and then helped run a farm with her husband and family in upstate New York, but she was also a prolific painter. She sold her paintings locally for $3 to $5 before being discovered in the 1930s by New York City collectors. She began to have shows in Manhattan galleries and at MoMA; her work was compared to that of Breughel and Henri Rousseau, even though she had never heard of them.
Folk Art Furniture
Folk art furniture offered a particularly attractive aesthetic for the mainstream, since the authentic touch of the individual craftsperson could be felt in the quirks and flaws of each work. But the furniture produced by American folk artists is notable, not just for the particularity of personal style, but also for the national influences brought about by the American melting pot.
The presence of German immigrants lent a baroque twist to the work coming out of Pennsylvania Dutch country. The chairs, tables, and headboards from that region are often embellished with intricate tulips, birds, and stars. Around the Great Lakes, artists of Scandinavian descent employed a technique called rosemaling, or “decorative painting”, which gave a stylized and polychromatic ornamentation to their wooden trunks and bedframes. Meanwhile, French furniture makers in the Bayou Region used gilding practices that gave their work a Rococo bent.
This regional diversity, along with the personal character of folk art furniture, has solidified its place in the American canon. Take a look at folk art from all over the world as well.