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What is Folk Art?

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American Folk Art

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Some folk art is simple, undecorated craftwork created for everyday use. Some is highly decorated, specially painted or carved art made for an important purpose. Throughout history, each culture has produced its own varieties of folk art. This article focuses on American folk art.

In particular, it discusses the folk art of the English-speaking people who settled in the eastern part of the United States in the 's, 's, and 's. These original European immigrants were the first to produce a large, identifiable type of folk art. It is now known as "Anglo-American.

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All these people brought their own styles of folk art with them to their new country. Most folk painters of the 's and 's were professionals trained in the traditions of their craft. Multitalented artists, they did many different kinds of painting to earn a living. These included portraits and landscapes as well as tavern signs, houses, furniture, room interiors, and sailing ships.

Before photography became popular in the late 's, people were eager to have painters make portraits of family members. Thus many painters traveled from town to town, offering their services to people in each place they stopped. Many folk portrait painters showed high levels of skill and talent. Others worked quickly with poor results.

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The portraits generally followed a standard format. They showed people in stiff poses. For example, the people were seated or standing, often holding a book or some other object.

American Folk Art Museum in NYC

Children were shown in these formal poses, too. They sometimes held their favorite toys or pets.

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  4. In most folk art portraits, the greatest attention was given to the face, to capture a likeness of the subject. The rest of the figure and the background often had a flat, simplified look. The portraits were very popular, especially in small towns and rural areas. Today they provide a fascinating record of the clothes and furnishings of the past. The large portraits painted by traveling artists were hung in the parlors of many homes, where visitors would see them.

    As a hobby, many people also made small watercolor portraits of friends and family members. Silhouettes cut from paper were another popular way of capturing a likeness. Folk art painters also produced landscapes, seascapes, and other scenes. Seascapes generally showed famous ships or naval battles. Most landscapes were peaceful, idealized views of homes, farms, and towns. Historic events and scenes from the Bible were also favorite subjects for folk painters, both amateur and professional.

    So were still-life scenes of flowers, fruit, and everyday objects that were painted by girls as part of their schoolwork. In the 's another kind of painting became popular: the memorial. These works were made to mark the death of a family member.

    American folk art | Etsy

    In somber tones, they generally showed family members gathered around the tombstone of the departed one. Sometimes they showed people draped across the stone, sobbing with grief. Births, marriages, and other important life events were often recorded on documents decorated by folk artists. In Pennsylvania and some midwestern communities settled by German immigrants, these documents were called fraktur.

    A fraktur combined decorative lettering with elaborate and colorful watercolor designs. These included hearts, flowers, animals, and human figures. Fraktur birth and marriage certificates hung on the walls of many homes. Fraktur techniques were also used to illustrate Bible stories and other favorite legends and tales. In many fraktur pieces, the writing is as pretty as the design.

    In fact, before the days of typewriters and computers, penmanship was an art form.

    This art form is known as calligraphy. Schoolchildren were drilled in penmanship techniques by professional penmanship masters. People who had mastered those techniques often showed off their skills by creating gifts or presentation pieces for friends and relatives. In these works, the words take second place to the elaborate pictures and designs formed entirely by the calligrapher's free-flowing pen strokes. The earliest folk sculpture in America was created by artists and craftsmen trained in traditional woodcarving techniques. Many were ship's carvers who produced figureheads and sternboards for sailing vessels.

    The collection of American folk art at the Metropolitan Museum is characterized by pure serendipity. It is highly prized and was acquired almost entirely by gift. Among the generous donors, Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch stand out as the principle benefactors. They soon began a program of giving works to museums that concluded with their bountiful bequest in ; in all, the Metropolitan received more than paintings and drawings.

    The Garbisches described their American paintings as naive, casting their weighty vote in the terminology debates sparked by this field of study. Others refer to such art as plain, rural, provincial, outsider, idiosyncratic, or nonacademic—terms that are all marred by implications of condescension and inferiority.

    No single term can meet that challenge. Folk paintings are unified by conventions of method, aesthetics, and circumstance. The artists worked principally in the Northeast, away from urban centers; most spent their careers moving from place to place courting local audiences. Quite a few were highly trained ornamental painters. Almost all of them favored strong colors, broad and direct application of paint, patterned surfaces, generalized light, skewed scale and proportion, and conspicuous modeling.

    Most developed compositional formulas that allowed them to work quickly, with limited materials and in makeshift studios.