History of SELF-TAUGHT

Sidney Janis, "They Taught Themselves," chapter one in They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century(1942; reprinted 1999)

"Decline" in the Art of the People
It would appear from the studies already made in this field, that the tradition of art of the people, which flourished so profusely in America, reached an apotheosis in the second quarter of the 19th century and declined with the advent of a new era of science and industry. As the camera gained favor, the itinerant portrait painter, who had done the finest of this early self-taught work, was gradually eliminated from the scene. When the family album appeared on the table, ancestor paintings began to find their way to the attic, from the obscurity of which they were not to emerge until the second quarter of the 20th century....

In Search of a Name
The confusion caused by the various descriptive terms for self-taught artist leads one to ponder the problem of a name that will convey without ambiguity his place in the world of art. This problem is somewhat complicated by the fact that there are many categories of contemporary self-taught artists.

We find for example that Doriani paints humorous folk-art; Sullivan, whose work has the feeling of Mantegna, paints philosophical themes, while Hirshfield derives from psychological-instinctive sources. The New England landscapes of Moses, Southworth, Santo, Pa Hunt and Knapp are lyric and pictorial; those of Rev. Mulholland are spiritual in a religious sense. The direct approach, as it exists in child-art, is part of the elemental character of the work of Litwak, Crawford and Hutson. Church, the blacksmith, creates robust and Victorian fantasy, and the fantasy of Reyher springs from themes in poetry and the science of entomology.

These few examples demonstrate that there is a rich variety in the work of our contemporary self-taught artists, and it is important for this reason that a name be selected which is comprehensive enough to cover them all in one expressive category.

A variety of names has been used, none of them adequate. Some appear in this book because their specific gradations of meaning are effective. In the past, those most frequently used have been: Non-professionals, which is too general; Sunday Painters, affectionate but hardly accurate; Popular Painters, which suggests the popularity of song hits and Painters of the People, an agreeable name but too inclusive. The term Folk-artist implies a person who makes rural or peasant art and directs his efforts to objects made primarily for use. Instinctives they are, but they are very much more than this.

Naives, a name which in its purest meaning implies those who are artless, ingenuous, refreshingly innocent, may well apply. But unfortunately through common usage it calls to mind ignorance. Most frequently used is the term Primitives, which, although usage gives it a very wide application, is limited for our purpose. It may therefore seem that the combined term Naïve-Primitives most closely approximates the category under which these artists might be generally grouped. But besides being cumbersome, it still carries undesirable overtones.

The title, Self-taught Artists, which is favored by the author, adequately describes them, and is at the same time unassuming. While the definition as it stands might be stretched to include non-primitives, such as those who paint more or less academically, or even schooled artists who have rebelled against their schooling, there are apart from this, no implications to spoil its meaning. The term autodidactic, which André Breton suggests, comes even nearer an accurate description. But his is already associated with the sophisticated self-taught among the surrealist painters, who work with full knowledge of the tradition of art. Naïve-Primitive, then, is probably the most concise term, but Self-taught, which audience reaction also favors because of its close tie to everyday life, is used in the text as a more satisfactory one.

Sidney Janis, "They Taught Themselves," chapter one in They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1942; reprint, New York: Hudson River Press and Sanford L. Smith and Associates, 1999) 4, 11-13.

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