British & Irish Artists from the Anthony Petullo Collection
Visitors to my art collection frequently ask which pieces are my favorites. I used to say that I can’t really choose just a few from among hundreds of artworks. But lately I find myself suggesting that perhaps I favor those I instinctively place in the rooms where I spend the most time. They are very livable and I never tire of them. Some are just pleasing to look at, some inspiring, and others are like old friends. The paintings and drawings in this book are definitely some of my favorites.
Another frequent question is how I classify these artists. Where do they fit in with other popular forms of art? Answering those questions has always been challenging.
Art historians use categories – genres – to define art. Art museum curators and critics are wedded to the term genre to describe a particular art style, content or technique. Somehow they are able to categorize almost all forms of art throughout history – at least those forms that are academically acceptable. But there have been times in more recent history when they have been baffled by a new style or rejected it outright because it didn’t fit the norms of category.
Impressionism and American Ashcan School are two genre examples of early rejection followed by universal acceptance and significant impact on the art world.
Impressionism art, originating in France in the late 19th century, endured severe reviews from some critics. In 1874 French painter and art critic Louis Leroy coined the term impressionist in a sarcastic review of a group exhibition, at which he saw Impression, Sunrise (1873, Musee Marmottan, Paris) by Monet. i “When Gustave Caillebotte left his superb Impressionist collection to the French nation in 1894, Jean-Leon Gerome wrote that ‘For the Government to accept such filth there would have to be a great moral slackening.’” ii
“The Impressionists were not a formal group with clearly defined principles and aims; rather they were a loose association of artists linked by some community of outlook who banded together for the purpose of exhibiting, most of them having had difficulty in getting their work accepted for the official Salon.” iii They were criticized for breaking conventional rules of picture-making. Theirs was a ‘first impression’, spontaneous depiction of their surroundings, including ordinary urban life – much to the horror of some in the establishment.
By the 1880s the Impressionists began to drift apart but by then they had dramatically influenced Western art, including art in America.
In the early 1900s American Ashcan School iv artists -The Eight – portrayed ordinary people in urban life, including those in slums, tenements and saloons – a shocking contrast to the then accepted representation of more formal, upper-class life. The Eight was a loosely formed group of independent Philadelphia artists and illustrator/reporters with very different painting styles. What they had in common was their view of urban life with all its rough edges exposed.
The Eight followed their leader Robert Henri to New York where in 1908 they had their art submissions rejected by the National Academy of Design. Theirs was a “frank, unflinching depiction of American urban life.” v Such realism at the turn of the twentieth century was unthinkable to the establishment. They thought the art was vulgar and dubbed the Eight ‘The Apostles of Ugliness’.
However, after The Eight mounted two successful exhibitions on their own, the public disagreed with the critics: they loved the art. Following those shows, their participation in the hugely popular 1913 Armory Show set a new direction for American art: the beginning of modern art.
But what about those artists who are never part of a recognized genre or category? How are they to be classified? And what do we call their style of art? They are ‘orphans without an art family’. Ten of those artists are featured in this book: very talented artists who didn’t care about genre. As one of the featured artists told me, “I don’t like labels. It’s all about the individual artist.”
All the artists presented here had some degree of fame, with solo exhibitions and extensive media coverage. Two were the subject of BBC television documentaries in Britain; one was a seven-time selection in the London Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; all are represented in museum collections, with four included in the Tate Gallery collection. They all are twentieth century artists, two of whom are still creating as I write.
These artists have vastly different styles and were not part of a formal group. And to my knowledge, not one ever met one of the other nine. But they do have much in common. They share an independent spirit, unrestrained by the rules of art training. Also, they are inventive, having a free flow of creativity. Essentially, they create for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, with little or no regard for the rest of the art world. I doubt that any of them would have stopped creating had no one bought another painting or drawing from them. They all enjoyed the public admiration but it didn’t affect their art.
None of these artists evidenced any mimicry, the practice of adopting techniques or styles of other artists, common among so many famous and not-so-famous artists. These artists worked in their own style, which was recognizable throughout their career. Their work was the same at the end of their career as it was at the beginning. Their style may have evolved over time but there was no doubt about who created the art. These artists were content with what they produced and never felt the need to look further, unlike so many trained artists who move from style to style searching for just the right one.
Some of my ‘artist-friends’ admired the work of other artists but didn’t attempt to mimic what they admired. Coincidentally, four of the artists specifically cited Alfred Wallis (included in this book) as one of their favorites. The irony is that Wallis, who called himself a ‘primitive’, didn’t care for anyone else’s art.
These ten artists are generally designated self-taught or having very little academic training. Some of the more frequently used terms within self-taught are: primitive, naïve, spiritualist, visionary, folk, art brut and outsider. The artists didn’t care what terms were used to describe their art – they were happy just creating. However, many in the art world – historians, curators, critics, collectors, gallery owners and anyone else wishing to express an opinion – do care but they can’t agree on any common terminology. Others, principally a few art critics, are at a loss to describe the art or fail to acknowledge it.
I have used the self-taught and outsider terms in describing my art collection, which I readily admit has never been done with a great deal of confidence. The term self-taught has been used to describe many famous artists, including such notables as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, both of whom began their careers rather late. The difference between those two and the self-taught artists in this book is that Van Gogh and Gauguin wanted to learn from each other, and from other artists as well, whereas my ‘artist friends’ did not – they were perfectly content with their own intuitive style. A lack of desire to learn from other artists is a critical distinguishing characteristic of the artists in this book.
Outsider is another unique term, originally coined by art historian Roger Cardinal as an English derivative of the French term art brut (raw art), the term artist Jean Dubuffet used to describe the art of patients in mental hospitals, which he later expanded to include artists not hospitalized, and which the art community has now misused to include all manner of things. So you can see the confusion over the use of either outsider or self-taught.
Perhaps an apt description of the art in this book is ‘Art created by remarkably talented 20th century artists who had little or no academic training and who were content with their own intuitive style throughout their career.’ vi
So, dear reader, I leave it to you to decide whether you would like to assign my artist-friends to a category or just enjoy their art – as I do.
i. Belinda Thomas, “Impressionism (art), “Microsoft®Encarta®Online Encyclopedia 2008
ii. Ian Chilvers. The Oxford Dictionary of Art (Third Edition, Oxford University Press 2004)
iii. Ian Chilvers
iv. A term first used by Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr in Art in America (New York, 1934)
v. Donald Goddard, American Painting (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1990), 158.
vi. The author’s definition.