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10.4: Early American Folk Art (1650 – 1900)

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  • Folk Art refers to art made for utilitarian purposes, for example, rugs, checkerboards, weathervanes, items generally used daily around the home and farm. Small prints or portraits became standard for the primary artist and usually painted by a family member. Handmade folk art was described as rough, rural, ordinary, and inferior, yet a few notable painters can be considered outstanding folk-art painters; Ruth Bascom (1772-1848), Joshua Johnson (1763 – 1824), and Rufus Hathaway (1770 - 1822). Photography had not been invented yet, giving the itinerant painters a market for their work.

    Ruth Bascom usually painted the side profile busts of her subjects and initially started with layered paper. Gaining confidence, she started adding pastels, and then finally paint giving her work a one-dimensional flat look, yet elegant details in lace and the hair can be seen in her Cynthia Allen Fitzwilliam (10.17) and Elizabeth Cummings Low (10.18) paintings.

    Cynthia Allen Fitzwilliam
    10.17 Cynthia Allen Fitzwilliam
    Elizabeth Cummings Low
    10.18 Elizabeth Cummings Low

    Joshua Johnson, the son of a black slave woman, was sold to a new owner for 25 pounds. The man who bought Joshua arranged for him to be an apprentice to a blacksmith, freeing him in the process. After he was freed, he advertised himself as a portrait painter and an illustrator of manuscripts, gaining fame for painting multi-figure family groups as a folk artist. In the portrait, John Jacob Anderson and Sons, John, and Edward (10.19), he painted intricate details in the silk vest and the lace of the children's collars, although some parts of the figures are out of proportion as seen in the hands.

    John Jacob Anderson and Sons John and Edward
    10.19 John Jacob Anderson and Sons John and Edward

    Rufus Hathaway, a self-taught folk-art painter, was an American physician. He began painting portraits of prominent local families, yet sadly, there are few paintings left today. Lady with Her Pets (10.20) depicts the image of a woman surrounded by different pets, perhaps a reference to her father, who was a professor of natural history. She is wearing contemporary French fashion, demonstrating her refinement and interest in worldly affairs.

    Lady with Her Pets (Molly Wales Fobes),
    10.20 Lady with Her Pets (Molly Wales Fobes),