Antique Folk Art 

By Karen Parr-Moody


During the Federal and Early Republican periods of America, likenesses were created of moderately well-to-do Americans by self-taught artists. These stiffly-posed models, depicted in oil, watercolor and pastel, are now known as "primitive" paintings, and have been a popular collectible since the 1920s. Among the other primitive "folk art" of recent centuries are items now considered antiques, but which were, when original created, never intended as "art for art's sake." Within this genre are weathervanes, hand-carved figures and signs, carousel horses, and cast iron doorstops, to name a few. 


The oil painting of a child in the photo, right, dates to Pennsylvania of the 1800s ($1,495; W-101). Such works were done largely in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. This child's likeness exemplifies the genre. The unknown and, most likely, self-taught artist who painted this toddler would have probably had other occupations besides painting prosperous farmers and the elite members of small towns; sign and coach painting were among these.


In the same vein of the era's other craftsmen  –  furniture makers, potters and silversmiths  – such painters' work would have varied wildly according to each one's skill. The artist who painted this young girl has some command of that Italian technique called "chiaroscuro," by which depth and dimension is given to a subject through the use of light and shadow. Perspective? That wasn't one of his strong suits. Nor was it the bailiwick of most of these artists; their knack for capturing the human image was certainly limited by their lack of schooling. Today, the stiff and strangely foreshortened depictions seem quaint, and this is just one reason such paintings are collectible.


The painting, left, is another example of a 19th-century American primitive oil ($145; W-101). This child was painted in 1846 with a dog and cat, but oddly enough, these animals might not have been hers. Much like a photographer of the latter 1800s, these painters posed sitters with props that would signify one's profession or occupation. This might be binoculars for a sea captain, a book for a clergyman or a lawyer, or a doll or toy for a child. The painters of such subjects were also often itinerant, traveling with canvases that were pre-painted with the background and body of the subject. In such cases, they might attract a sitter who only had to pose long enough to have his or her head added. 





The winter scene in the oil painting, right, is signed "M. Allen" and dates to around 1947 ($149; booth B-200). It is done in the style of Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860 – 1961), a woman better known as "Grandma Moses." This renowned American folk artist began her successful career in the arts at an advanced age, and inspired imitators. Such was her popularity that her 100th birthday was celebrated with a photo of her on the September 19, 1960 cover of Life magazine. 



The folk art pillow, left, dates to 1892 ($45; W-101). This is an Arnold Print Works cat, which would have have originally come as a sheet of printed fabric; some homemaker would have stuffed it with cotton and stitched it together. The Arnold Print Works of North Adams, Massachusetts was formed in 1860, and was a large contractor of fabric for the Union Army, which helped the business prosper. It was one of the world's leading manufacturers of printed textiles, and made other prints for home projects, such as toy soldiers or rabbits. By 1942 it had become greatly weakened by the Great Depression and was forced to downsize. 







The piece of Roy Minshew folk art, right, was actually made in 1986, but it has obvious roots in American folk art history ($125; Booth B-2024). For hundreds of years, animals have been a favorite subject for folk artists, including rocking chair horses, barnyard animal weathervanes and hand-carved signs with snakes. Minshew works almost exclusively in that tradition, carving animals from his studio in Fitzgerald, Georgia. However, this piece, which is reminiscent of Liberty Leading the People, is rare in that it is a human figural. 


Folk art can be primarily utilitarian and decorative, or it can be done by those not traditionally schooled in art. No matter what the roots, folk art offers a great opportunity for decorators who want to lighten up the mood of a room. Unpretentious and brimming with sincerity, the craftsmanship and excellent detail of these antiques are the perfect foil to modernity. 

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