Naive Painters: Essay by Claire Milbrath


usa-museum_of_modern_art-henri_rousseauHenri Rousseau 

My favourite genre of art is naive art because it makes me smile. That classification is pretty dated by now, and calling something “primitive” or “naive” is seen as derogatory. But I do think the term “naive” is a good way to describe this type of work. Naive art is a sincere and isolated expression of a personal experience, a “naive vision.” If you don’t know about naive art, it’s characterized by a few key features: flat, childlike scenes; erroneous perspective; painted always by an untrained, and usually formally uneducated artist. 

There’s a Picasso quote about learning the rules in order to break them that smells a bit like privilege to me. Nowadays almost anyone can be an artist, but for centuries that wasn’t the case. It was a privilege to have the funds and the time to study art. The defining features of naive painters is that they were “ordinary people,” uneducated farmers, peasants, lowly clerks. Self-taught, and painting with any tools they could find (cardboard, mushed berries), the naive painters are sort of similar to the early DIY musicians in 1970s Britain. Only the art they were making wasn’t a kind of rebellion or commentary on current affairs; Naive art is a-historical, out of touch and isolated from the times.

Only in the 19th century did it become acceptable for a self-taught artist to show their work, and even then it was met with wide criticism and mockery. The Salon des Independants initiated an enormous change in the attitude towards untrained artists. In 1884 they began exhibiting massive, public art shows. Sans jury ni recompense—no jury nor awards. It was here that naive painter Henri Rousseau exhibited every year, becoming a must-see for critics and viewers looking for a laugh. Avant-garde painters like Picasso and Gauguin were delighted by Rousseau’s childlike jungle scenes, each desperately trying to free himself from the limitations imposed by a formal education.

1313787920citydwellers_web-1Maud Lewis

1318707871threeblackkittens_webMaud Lewis

190t00141_6mcd7Maud Lewis

There are many similarities among the naive painters, both in painting style and personal backgrounds. The obvious trait is the lack of knowledge about perspective. A farm landscape that looks like it’s sloped upward into the sky. A child with huge cartoon eyes standing next to a tree of the same height. Meticulously detailed foregrounds as well as backgrounds, and almost no sense of shadow or light. I’m charmed by the technical failings, maybe because I don’t understand perspective or shading myself. But surely you also feel touched  looking at Maud Lewis’ wide-eyed, electrocuted cats? It’s a sincere and instinctive rendition of the artists’ world. Maud Lewis famously never saw another work of art, never travelled beyond a 60 mile radius of Nova Scotia. 

Most of them worked with extreme passion and devotion. Gertrude O’Brady picked up painting when she was 40 years old and completed 60 paintings in just 5 years, working 12 hour days at the easel. Maud Lewis covered literally every surface of her 9×10 ft single-room home with her flower and kitten paintings. Some artists even went into a trance while producing the work, like Seraphine Lewis who claimed heavenly voices directed her to paint.

h0965-l90254224Seraphine Louis

vda_lam_seraphine_bouquet_2Seraphine Louis

Health was often an issue for the naive painters. Seraphine was an orphaned house-keeper wrought with mental illness. Her rich, repetitive, intense floral arrangements served as an escape from her psychosis. Poor and over-worked, Seraphine’s painting practice served mediative purposes. She reportedly headed into the woods in a daze to create her own color pigments from animal blood, plants, and flowers. She never revealed the exact ingredients and claimed it was a secret. She painted on small pieces of wood in her one-room apartment until she was committed to Clermont’s Lunatic Asylum.

Nikifor, a Polish naive painter born deaf-mute from a deaf-mute sex-worker, learned to paint with the art supplies available at the hospital. Maud, also an orphan, suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis which restrained her arm-use, hence the small scale paintings and the out-of-the-tube colours. 

Girl in a MirrorMorris Hirschfield

Rousseau was naive to a fault, and was often mocked, and exploited financially. In one instance, some colleagues convinced him to help launder money unknowingly. When caught by the authorities and tried in court, the Defense showed his artwork to argue his ignorance. How could some one who painted so poorly be a clever criminal mind? To think that Rousseau was aware of his own naivety would be a mistake. While we see the work of naive artists as a negation of reality, the artists themselves did not necessarily see it that way. Morris Hirschfield, a fascination of Peggy Guggenhiem, claimed to strive for the “precision of photography,” which, when you see his work, seems like a wild joke. 


edward_hicks_-_peaceable_kingdom_-_google_art_projectEdward Hicks,  “A Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” 1 & 2 

Edward Hicks, one of the earliest classified naive painters, painted his religious scene “A Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch,” 62 times before achieving perfection (or something that looks like a thrift store painting). Each artist was very serious about their work, as indicated by the large bold black signatures that unify most of naive works. Rousseau famously told Picasso that the two of them were the greatest painters alive, Picasso in the “Egyptian manner,” and himself in the “Modern manner.”

henri_rousseau_-_myself-_portrait_-_landscape_-_google_art_projectHenri Rousseau, “Myself, Portrait Landscape,”

His self-portrait at the World’s Fair in Paris, “Myself, Portrait Landscape,”  was a bold attempt to present himself as a fine artist. Rousseau thought his combination of portrait and landscape was entirely original and groundbreaking. Rousseau claimed to have created a new genre of painting. His claim was greeted with mockery, aside from the admiration of the Berlin Dadaists who called it  “Proletariat Painting.” 

1447866848972184Louis Vivin

Maybe the fact that all the key naive painters were orphaned has something to do with their child-like innocence…but it’s more likely that they all worked strenuous full-time jobs. Most of these painters picked up their first brush after the age of 30. Louis Vivin was a retired post office clerk who started painting at the age of 62, copying picture postcards meticulously. Vivin’s work is now shown in famous galleries across the world. Rousseau worked 70 hour weeks at a customs office. It’s no wonder he was never able to master the human foot, often hiding the subject’s feet and hands behind undergrowth.

Houses at St Ives, Cornwall ?c.1928-42 by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

'The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach' ?c.1932 by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis was a Cornish fisherman who took up painting after his wife died. Painting seascapes from memory on pieces of cardboard ripped from packing boxes, Wallis’ sense of perspective is astounding. He is one of my favourites. 

Much of the naive art is still gone or missing, or has never been seen. Even today Rousseau paintings are showing up in garage sales and farmhouse attics. I wonder how many other unknown, unsung, great naive painters are out there. Next time you head into a Value Village I’m sure you’ll find at least one winter scene, with triangle trees and a lego person on a set of skies, marked with a bold black signature.