Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 4, 2009 with permission of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive directly at either this phone number or Web address:


American Vernacular: Folk Art from the Collection

by James Steward, Curator


Since 1974, shortly after its founding, the University Art Museum at the University of California at Berkeley has quietly been amassing a major collection of American folk art. Due almost entirely to the generosity of two collectors and Museum patrons -- W. B. Carnochan and N. C. Carnochan (now N. C. Edebo) -- this previously unheralded collection is one of the finest in California, featuring important examples of American folk art in all the major media. American Vernacular: Folk Art from the Collection celebrates this collection, including promised gifts, and the generosity of the collectors who formed it.

The beginnings of the Berkeley collection coincide with the landmark 1974 exhibition, The Flowering of American Folk Art 1776 - 1876, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which established standards for judging quality in the field. Since that time, American folk art has come to be appreciated as a major indigenous expression of popular American culture, freed from many of the constraints of the European tradition. Although active collecting began in the 1920s, focusing primarily on artists of the Eastern seaboard, the first critical accounts of the genre did not appear until the 1930s, when it was championed for characteristics which seemed to relate it to vital elements of contemporary American art.

From the beginning, collectors and curators have valued the self-taught, independent, and isolated aspects of American folk art. As Sidney Janis wrote in his They Taught Themselves of 1942, "When these individuals paint, they rarely learn from a developed painting culture because it is far removed from their perception, and being removed, cannot touch them. Each creates in his own world."[1] The self-taught aspect is a quality viewers of folk art often remark upon, noting a lack of technical proficiency -- especially in painting; yet it should not be overemphasized, for, as we have recently come to know, some folk artists did in fact receive formal training. The stylistic simplification that characterizes much folk art thus emerges as a conscious aesthetic choice rather than arising from technical necessity. Even so, critics, including sophisticated ones, have described the work of these artists as "naive," "unsophisticated," and "primitive." Indeed, the vocabulary for discussing American folk art no longer seems to serve: even to call it "folk" is problematic, for some of the work is only questionably populist. Recently, the term "plain painting" has been proposed, but this too is not wholly satisfactory, as it seeks to describe the work by what it is not. "Vernacular," describing a rootedness to place (often region) and period, suggests instead an adaptation of style to local needs.

On lengthier examination, the "plainness" of vernacular work, and/or lack of formal training, can be seen positively to remove certain self-conscious, premeditated barriers between the artist and the ability to express, if not to describe. As Jean Lipman, an important scholar of American folk art, has rightly pointed out, the vision of the folk artist is essentially a non-optical one, a style "depending upon what the artist knew rather than upon what he saw, and so the facts of physical reality were largely sifted through the mind and personality of the painter."[2]

The best of the American folk artists' paintings, carvings, and utilitarian objects not only please the eye but chronicle the tastes and values of classes of people whose experiences have otherwise gone unrecorded. The collection of the University Art Museum -- in both works already given and those promised -- contains major works of painting and sculpture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Amongst the earliest is the Portrait of Alexander Dix of about 1790 by the "Beardsley Limner," now identified -- somewhat controversially -- as Sarah Perkins, one of the earliest women artists in the young American Republic.[3] This portrait dates from the period of returning prosperity and more settled conditions after the Revolutionary War, when the middle-class demand for painted portraits returned. The style suggests an anti-aristocratic taste for simplicity in the new Republic, while also owing much to the middle-class style that had swept English portraiture from the 1750s. Indeed, the Dix portrait evinces a surprising degree of sophistication -- the pains to individualize the pose, the evocation of three-dimensionality through ruffles and pleated fabric. This should not surprise us, for Perkins had an educated background: her father was the proprietor of a Connecticut school, and the family was closely linked to the academic life of New Haven. Sadly, Perkins seems to have given up painting in about 1795 to care for her seven younger siblings and, later, her own family of nine children.

The works of the nineteenth-century folk painter Ammi Phillips (1788 - 1865) are amongst the most sought after in the field of American folk painting. One of the most prolific and important American folk artists, Phillips is now (after over 30 years of intensive research) known to have painted some 500 works, of which the Portrait of Catherine Van Slyck Dorr of 1814 - 15 in the Carnochan Collections stands as one of the finest. Before 1820, the artist's work is marked by a remarkably subtle palette, lightly romantic, here dominated by rose and blue. The best of his portraits represent members of the country nobility, set in stylized poses against plain backgrounds -- often because pose was the most difficult aspect of painting for Phillips.

When Phillips went to Hoosick Falls, New York, in 1814 to paint the family of prominent residents Colonel and Mrs. Joseph Dorr (the other Dorr portraits are now in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection in Williamsburg), he brought with him a concern for delineating character. Phillips's portraits of children from this time are amongst his most charming, capturing a wistful air of reverie, combined with a rather Puritanical air of seriousness. The somber pose and expression suggest the influence of the artist's Connecticut upbringing and his exposure to, on travels through the northeast, the works of the last of the great generation of eighteenth-century Connecticut painters who had raised folk art from craft to profession.

Like the best of the self-taught artists, Phillips sought solutions to problems inherent in his lack of technical skill, turning his liabilities to advantage so that even awkward limbs and oversized hands become design features. Perhaps Phillips's appeal lies ultimately in the combination of realism -- the lifelike faces -- with an unwitting flirtation with abstraction, where he "exaggerated anatomy and costume...painted in rhythmic detail...both over and understated where he pleased."[4] Indeed, simplicity of form must account for some measure of the popularity of folk art in the modern, abstract, and post-modern periods.

Ammi Phillips in turn greatly influenced another folk artist in the Museum and Carnochan collections, Erastus Salisbury Field (1805 - 1900). Born in Leverett in western Massachusetts, Field worked a geographic area which overlapped that of the older artist. Field studied professionally, albeit briefly, with the young artist Samuel F. B. Morse, then one of the leading American portraitists, in 1824 - 25, and went on to make his living as a portrait painter. The Museum has two important Field portraits from about 1836, the time of his most poised work as a portraitist when a sense of romantic prosperity infused his portraits.

The most important work by Field promised from the Carnochan Collections, however, is the extraordinary Israelites Crossing the Red Sea, painted between 1865 and 1888. From the late 1840s, landscapes and history paintings had begun to replace portraits as Field's focus, perhaps as his portrait commissions fell off in the face of competition from the daguerreotype. The catalyst was perhaps the death of Field's wife in 1859, when he turned exclusively to escapist historical and religious pieces. Under the influence of the radical English painter John Martin, Field carried out a number of panoramic old testament scenes -- massively peopled compositions of both naive charm and grandeur. The eccentricity of Field's image is no accident: from recording artist of his local society, Field became celebrated as the inventor of mythical landscapes. In old age, he was known as the eccentric deaf storyteller who delighted local children with stories of his Biblical paintings. By the time of his death in 1900, Field was, at 95, the oldest man in his county.

Isrealites is one of a cycle of Field's paintings dealing with the plagues of Egypt and the final freeing of the Israelites. Only nine examples survive of the larger original series, which seems to have been intended to decorate the North Amherst Church. The cycle is loosely based on prints by the English artists John Martin and Richard Westall, as well as a fairly literal reading of the story of Exodus. The exotic architecture and perspective of Martin's Plagues of Egypt strongly influenced Field; such borrowing was an accepted norm in nineteenth century. But Field has altered and personalized the scenes of retribution and divine wrath to incorporate allusions to the U. S. Civil War and an anti-slavery message. Field's style here is broader, sketchier than in the portraits; the unevenness of the painting suggests that he worked on it periodically over a number of years.

Landscape plays an important role in the UAM/PFA and Carnochan collections, notably the important, unattributed View of Providence, Rhode Island of about 1825. Here, Providence -- specifically South Water Street and the First Congregational Church, as it was then called -- is seen at a time of transition from village to bustling commercial center. All the buildings have been identified, from home to warehouse, lumber business, and customs house. Only the 1816 church, with its belfry containing the largest bell cast by Paul Revere's Canton, Massachusetts foundry, survives today.

Panoramic scenes of streets and buildings like the View of Providence provided for the future a record of the life of the changing city. The people of Providence appreciated the recognition such paintings brought to their town; paintings like this one were displayed in local picture galleries, institutional collections, and private homes.

Unlike the View of Providence, very little is known about a rural landscape scene in the Carnochan Collections except the name of its artist. Signed "C. P. Ferguson" and stylistically dated to about 1860, it features the crude perspective and simplified drawing so valued in primitive American landscapes, combined with the fresh colors favored by self-taught artists. A cluster of prosperous, tidy farms rise vertically across the canvas, with a panoramic openness that contrasts refreshingly with the equally stylized portrait works. Like the urban views, stylized rural landscapes of this type may have been painted to commemorate prosperity and pride of ownership at a time when land still formed the basis of wealth.

Works on paper are also well represented in American Vernacular. A marvelous and surprising collage of calligraphy and a leaping deer of about 1840 undoubtedly served as an advertising display piece for a professional calligraphic artist, proud of his extraordinary penmanship. The oval with the leaping deer is surrounded by small calling cards, each bearing different types of calligraphy, which have been glued onto the mat. The work thus served to display the varied skills of the artist, who has signed his work "Flourished by Haoener/Penman" -- a lively reflection of a genre that seems no longer to exist.

The Carnochan Collections contain a number of wonderful examples of the mourning picture genre, including a superb, rare eighteenth-century mourning picture of Joseph Robeshow. The mourning picture expressed nineteenth-century American taste for the Neo-classical, as popularized in England by Robert Adam, Angelica Kauffmann, and Josiah Wedgewood. As early as 1782, prints of scenes such as "Fame Decorating the Tomb of Shakespeare" were circulating widely in the U. S. When George Washington died in 1799, a torrent of mourning pictures modeled on the English formula was unleashed. The enormous popularity of mourning scenes also partook of the rising tide of Romanticism, in which a preoccupation with death (as in Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, itself a key inspiration for mourning scenes) mingled with a belief in the immortality of the soul. Female citizens of the new Republic took up the format to commemorate the parting of loved ones, and in a few remarkable cases, to anticipate their own demise. Certain stock features developed -- weeping willows, funeral urns, statuesque grieving relatives -- and were often employed by schoolgirls learning the craft in their local seminaries.

Combining watercolor, gesso and colored embroidery on silk, the Mourning Picture of Joseph Robeshow memorializes the life of a man who, an inscription tells us, "was unfortunately cast away, and perished on an Island in Boston harbour." This delicate painting remained in the Robeshow family until sold to a dealer, from whose stock it entered the Carnochan Collections. The hand-made mourning picture died out as an art form in the 1840s, supplanted by inexpensive printed pictures.

The UAM/PFA and Carnochan collections contain a number of key sculptural pieces, especially two remarkable weathervanes. American weathervanes have been created since the seventeenth century -- the earliest professional weathervane maker was a Boston coppersmith who set up shop in 1683. Yet the form reached its popular peak in the nineteenth century, when weathervanes altered the skyline of most small American towns. Just as weather was the basic factor of rural life, the weathervane, especially in new, glittering copper and gilt, became a landscape feature of profound importance. To speak of such objects as "sculpture" is perhaps inadequate, for they fulfilled both practical and symbolic functions, and must be thought of as artifacts as well.

The choice of subject, such as the rooster, related both to the functions of the buildings they adorned and the presence of local industry: a sheep weathervane for a barn, a ship weathervane for a New England fishing village. Other weathervanes possessed symbolic features -- the rooster, for instance, traditionally connoted watchfulness. A marvelous painted bronze horse weathervane in the Carnochan Collections was made by a very early sand mold process. It dates from the 1820s, the earliest period of three-dimensional bronze and copper weathervanes, and uses paint along with areas of exposed bronze to bring out the three-dimensionality and texture of the sculpture. This beautifully burnished piece is one of only two horse weathervanes of this type ever to have been found.

A ram weathervane of about 1870 in the Carnochan Collections represents a later weathervane form. Easy to work and durable, copper became increasingly popular for weathervanes after mid-century. Here, sheet copper has been hammered and welded to form the hollow figure, and gold leaf then added. It stood atop the Tilton Tanning Mill in Tilton, New Hampshire. Jean Lipman has suggested that it is weathervanes such as these, in their simplicity and scale, which will stand comparison, as pure design, to the work of any professional sculptor, and have the most lasting importance as American folk art.[5]

While American Vernacular speaks primarily of the folk art traditions of New England, a small selection of objects eloquently testify to the presence of self-taught artists in nineteenth-century New Mexico. In contrast to the northeastern pieces, these works, all by anonymous artists, are profoundly religious. They describe the vital role of Catholic missionaries and settlers in the American southwest, a role so powerfully captured by Willa Cather's literary masterwork Death Comes for the Archbishop. Works such as the beautifully rough-hewn sculpture Our Lady of the Rosary or a stark crucifix, reminiscent of the almost expressionistic forms of Mattias Grunwald in Northern Renaissance Europe, join traditional Mexican arts to powerful Catholic iconography. Like the art of New England, these works give voice to the intensely felt personal and social visions of the American vernacular.


1 Quoted in Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong, eds., American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1980, p. 10.

2 American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, p. 11.

3 See Christine Skeeles Schloss, "The Beardsley Limner," in Antiques Magazine, 103:1 - 3, March 1973, pp. 533 - 538.

4 William Lamson Warren, "Ammi Phillips: A Critique," in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 1, p. 17.

5 Jean Lipman, American Folk Art in Wood, Metal, and Stone, 1948, p. 55.

Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.


About the author

James Christen Steward is director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Previously he was curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and a visiting professor of art history at the State University of New York at Genesco. He holds a doctorate from Trinity College, Oxford University and master's degrees from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and the University of Virginia. His art and literary reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Art Journal.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 4, 2009, with permission of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which was granted to TFAO on April 10, 2009.

This is a brochure essay written by James Steward for the exhibition American Vernacular: Folk Art from the Collection at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, December 14, 1994, to April 16, 1995. An adaptation of this essay was published in the December 1994 ­ January 1995 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judy Bloch of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum; Renee Jin; James Steward; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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