American Folk Art History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What do metal weathervanes and cotton hand-sewn quilts have in common? They're both made for utilitarian purposes, but can also be works of art. Many people feel the urge to make things even if they haven't been trained in fine art. In this lesson, we'll explore American folk art history.

What is folk art?

Folk art refers to objects made by people who aren't trained in a formal fine art tradition. They didn't study in art academies or learn from trained artists. Folk art can include painting, pottery, sculpture (especially wood, like duck decoys), textiles like quilts, metalwork like weathervanes, and other things.

Throughout history, people, often from rural areas, made objects by hand, teaching themselves how to do something or learning by watching those around them. Skills were passed down through generations. A lot of folk art is made of materials like wood, metal, clay or found materials, cast-off stuff like fabric scraps or metal junk that's available to reuse.

Horse and sulky weathervane, late 19th/early 20th century
horse and sulky weathervane

This horse and sulky weathervane dates from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It's made of wood but also covered with green paint. Metal pieces make up the sulky wheels and the horse's harness. The artist displayed ingenuity in gathering materials to make an object with appealing movement that serves a practical purpose.

Folk artists made objects that were utilitarian but also visually interesting. Sometimes, like sailors on whaling ships, they carved images into whale teeth, a type of folk art called scrimshaw, to relieve the boredom from long hours on the water away from home and family. Folk art objects reflect family, work, religion, celebration and community life. Sometimes they comment on politics. In short, they are another way of looking at American life.

Paintings as folk art

Some of the first artists in America were painters. Here's an early example of a folk art painting from the South. It's also one of the few works in American art history to give a glimpse of African-American life in the eighteen century.

Plantation Dance, done between 1785 and 1795, is a small watercolor painting thought to be done by John Rose, a South Carolina plantation owner. He depicts slaves in a rare moment of leisure. As some of them dance, others play musical instruments made of materials like gourds. The color, movement and animated quality of the figures make it a striking image.

Plantation Dance
Plantation Dance

Here is a portrait of a child titled Master Burnham. It was painted between 1831 and 1832 by a rare husband-and-wife team of itinerant, or traveling, artists, Samuel Addison Shute (1803-1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803-1882).

Master Burnham, circa 1831
Master Burnham portrait

The portrait is done in watercolor and gouache (opaque watercolor), with pencil and ink on paper. The figure isn't rendered with anatomical skill, but his vivid blue clothes, playful dog, and bold flowers create an appealing image. In early America, itinerant painters like the Shutes were usually self-trained. They moved from place to place, painting portraits for a living. The Shutes worked in New York and New England. After Samuel died, Ruth moved to Kentucky and continued to paint for the next 45 years.

Textiles as folk art

Folk art could also be made of fabric. One example, Bird of Paradise, is a quilt top, the elaborate decorative face of a quilt. It's been sewn together but it's waiting to be quilted to the batting (the part that gives a quilt its warmth).

Bird of Paradise quilt top, circa 1858-1863
Bird of Paradise quilt top

This elaborate design was done between 1858 and 1863 near Albany, New York. Look closely. It's made of cotton, wool, and silk, with ink and silk embroidery, and depicts a colorful, fascinating array of horses, birds, cats, dogs, and even an elephant! Groups of women sometimes made quilts and gave them to friends and family to mark important life events. They could be a gift, art, and warmth all rolled into one.

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