Williams College Museum of Art

Williamstown, Massachusetts


American Naive Paintings from the National Gallery of Art


Thirty-five important American naive paintings from the National Gallery of Art are on view at the Williams College Museum of Art through November 2, 1997. These lively and engaging paintings from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries depict a broad range of subjects, including portraits, landscapes, historical events, and scenes of daily life. Such well-known artists as Edward Hicks and Erastus Salisbury Field are represented as well as several anonymous painters. The work in American Naive Paintings from the National Gallery of Art were part of a generous gift to the National Gallery from collectors Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.

During the nineteenth century, the growing wealth and comfort of the American middle class created an expanding market of patrons interested in documenting their images for posterity. Before the spread of photography, they turned to such successful portrait painters as Joshua Johnson, Ammi Phillips, and William Matthew Prior. Many lesser known artists also produced likenesses, as in The Proud Mother (ca. 1810), a whimsical depiction of a baby presented to the mother.

While portraits represent the most popular and important segment of naive art, a variety of other themes are displayed in the show, including the dramatic marine painting Threatening Sky, Bay of New York (mid-Nineteenth century) by an anonymous artist; and genre scenes, such as Country Dance (ca. 1883) by Martin Edgar Ferrill and Bareback Riders (1886), painted by W.H. Brown during the circus' peak of popularity.

In the aftermath of the civil war, artists outside the academic tradition also interpreted historical and biblical events with fresh, expressive visions. Among those presented in the show are Edward Hicks' idyllic Penn's Treaty with the Indians (ca. 1840-1844), George Washington Mark's simple rendering of a revolutionary war conciliation in Marion feasting the British Officer on Sweet Potatoes (1848), and Erastus Salisbury Field's imaginative Pharaoh's Army Marching (ca. 1865/1880).

While their style has been referred to as "folk" or "primitive," these artists came from diverse backgrounds and demonstrated varying degrees of sophistication in their art. Some were professionals, having studied with academic painters or worked with established studios such as Currier and Ives. Many were amateurs, drawing inspiration from Instruction manuals or prints of the day. Several worked simultaneously as artisans in other fields. Others were successful itinerants, traveling through the rapidly growing towns, cities, or country side and working predominantly in established population centers of the northeast.

Paintings in this exhibition were drawn from the generous gift to the National Gallery of Art from Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Staring their collection in 1944 when interest in folk art was relatively new, Colonel and Mrs. Garbisch were able to obtain extraordinary works.

To share their enthusiasm with the public and to stimulate interest in these naive works, they donated and bequeathed their entire collection to museums throughout the country. The National Gallery received the largest and finest selection -- more than 300 paintings and 100 drawing, watercolors, and pastels -- making the Gallery one of the most important repostitories of American naive painting in the world. This exhibition is organized by the National Lending Service of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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