Self-Taught Genius: The Changing Concept of Folk Art

Stacy Hollander, American Folk Art Museum

Tuesday, February 10, 2015Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Phrenological head by Asa Ames (1823–1851), Evans, New York, ca. 1850

Phrenological head by Asa Ames (1823–1851), Evans, New York, ca. 1850, paint on wood, 16 3/8 × 7 1/8 inches. American Folk Art Museum, bequest of Jeanette Virgin. Photograph by John Parnell.

Joshua Johnson (active 1796–1824), believed to be America’s first professional painter of African descent, advertised himself in his hometown Baltimore newspaper in 1798 “[a]s a self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art …” Joshua Johnson’s observation was not unique. The English novelist Frances Trollope noted as a peculiar Americanism, in her 1833 book Domestic Manners of the Americans, that she had heard artist Chester Harding (1791–1866) described as a genius who was “perfectly self-taught.” What these artists shared, apart from limited access to art instruction, was a reliance on one’s own vision and technique.

In the newly formed United States, characterization of artists as “self taught” geniuses was part of the dynamic new nation’s spirit of optimism. Our “start up” nation, bereft of any prior national history, conceived of itself as an experimental model. After the War of Independence, all of the nation’s citizens were ostensibly “self-taught” Americans.

When Europe contemplated the new nation with a skeptical eye, many American artists’ took pride in their innate brilliance that was not based on formal education, academic training or classical precedent. Despite the absence of reliance on classicism, the genius of the self-taught in America — much like the new nation’s government — echoes Enlightenment theories postulated throughout the 18th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, collectors, professional artists, critics, dealers and curators defined the nascent field of American “folk art” with assemblages of works that displayed national identity, faith, progress, ingenuity, community and individuality. As the field matured, the umbrella term “folk art” covered a wider variety of artistic expression from unsuspected paths and unconventional places, giving voice to individuals situated outside of the social consensus, i.e., “outsider art.”

Continue reading