Folk Art Defined in 8 Minutes

Morris Hirshfield, "Cats in the Snow," oil on canvas, 1946. Sold for $290,500 via Christie's (May 2012).

Unlike other genres of art, which are often easily identified by a precise style or specific time period, folk art is a broad genre that can be difficult to define. The term “folk art” can simultaneously refer to a textile made in 17th century North America, a painted wooden sculpture from early 20th century England, or a contemporary mixed media painting made in the Philippines. In part, the wide-ranging characteristics of folk art are what make this genre so unique.

Many folk artists receive no academic training. Instead, they develop skills and techniques through apprenticeships, though this isn’t always the case. In contrast to what is more traditionally defined as fine art, folk art is often produced by a native culture or tradesperson. As such, the works are often instilled with a sense of tradition and community. Folk artists are less concerned with the traditional rules of perspective and proportion that are revered in canonical art history and more focused on expressing their cultural identity.

Left: “Portrait of a Young Girl and Her Cat” by Ammi Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1830. Sold for $1,248,000 via Christie’s (January 2007); Right: “Portrait of Helen Ten Broeck” by Ammi Phillips, oil on canvas, 1834. Sotheby’s (January 20).

The growth in popularity of folk art in the United States over the past few centuries can be traced back to the thriving middle class in the 1800s, which helped to encourage an inflated supply of commercial goods made by hand. This allowed for a booming art market in which artists could make a living producing handmade goods.  Although one might assume that the Industrial Revolution made handmade goods obsolete, in fact it helped boost the demand for more unique alternatives to mechanically-produced items. As the creation of goods and services transitioned toward mass production, Folk Art spoke to the nature of America’s culture. Similarly, folk art has garnered attention in many different countries for its honesty and meaningful subject matter and has remained popular through the centuries.

Stars of the Genre

Edward Hicks

Lot 60: Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Security,” oil on canvas. Sold for $9,673,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2008)

One of the most well-known American folk painters, Edward Hicks was a distinguished Quaker minister in early 19th century Pennsylvania. Because Quaker beliefs prohibited excess objects, he couldn’t work as both a preacher and painter. Hicks eventually transitioned into a full time painter, using his work to express his religious beliefs. He created 62 versions of the composition Peaceable Kingdom, his most well-known work, which was inspired by a Bible passage.

Ruth Henshaw Bascom

Left: Portrait of Lydia Luana by Ruth Henshaw Bascom, cut paper with pastel and pencil mounted against colored paper. Sold for $54,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2005); Right: Profile bust of a rosy-cheeked young boy by Ruth Henshaw Bascom, cut paper with pastel, pen, and ink on tinted blue paper, circa 1830. Sold for $72,000 via Sotheby’s (January 2007).

Bascom lived in rural Massachusetts from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. When she wasn’t teaching, she made portraits of friends and relatives. These life-size bust profiles were made of pastel on paper. Though her diaries reference more than 1,400 portraits, only around 200 have been identified. Her portraits were often gifts for which she received no payment, or else used in trade or barter. Her work can be seen in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum and the Worcester Art Museum.

Charlie Willeto

Left: Charlie Willeto, sculpture of a steer, carved and painted wood, 1960s; Right: Charlie Willeto, spirit figure, carved and painted wood mounted on a black iron stand, 1960s. Both objects sold via Cowan’s Auctions (October 2010).

Willeto was a medicine man and the first Navajo known to create sculptures of animals and other figures. He began carving in the 1960s just years before his death. Using his works as barter for food, he broke with tradition by carving sacred images onto old pieces of pine.

Elito Villaflor Circa

A Filipino painter born in 1970, Circa is internationally known for using human hair and bodily fluids in his works. With no formal training in painting, he began drawing with charcoals from his kitchen stove when he was eight years old. Many of Circa’s works incorporate Philippine mythology such as the legend of Minggan, a giant who lives alone in the Sierra Madre Mountain ranges. He says his use of blood, whether on its own or mixed with paint, symbolizes life, love, and sacrifice.

Consuelo Gonzalez Amezcua

Four drawings by Chelo Gonzalez Amezcua, pen and ink on paper. Sold for $6,573 via Christie’s (January 2004).

Known as “Chelo,” Amezcua immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1913. Her complex pen-and-ink drawings featured repetitive patterns of fine lines. Each one took around one month to complete. She often illustrated her interest in historical figures and also drew inspiration from Mexican-style filigree jewelry. Her work can be found in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s collection.

Techniques & Processes

Lot 27: Vestie Davis, “Witches Tearoom,” oil on canvas board, 1962. Sold for $3,125 via Doyle (July 2016).

Because Folk Art is used to express cultural identity, it can incorporate a range of media, including wood, cloth, paper, clay, and metal. When traditional materials such as paint or paper are inaccessible for the artist, other materials are substituted, giving folk art its unique aesthetic.

Folk Art Meets the 21st Century

Though the purpose of folk art is not to seek international acclaim or incorporate the latest techniques in art making, it has nonetheless prevailed throughout the centuries and remains a popular genre among art collectors. In America, some of the most popular forms of folk art in the 21st century include picture framing and quilting.

Lot 379: Rufus Hathaway, “Josiah Dean III and his wife Sarah Dean of Raynham, Massachusetts,” oil on canvas, circa 1791. Sold for $441,600 via Sotheby’s (January 2006).

Despite the fact that folk art is typically made outside of institutionalized networks, it has earned a place in respected institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. In 1961, the American Folk Art Museum was established in New York City, devoted to the appreciation of contemporary self-taught artists in the United States and abroad. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold annual auctions entirely devoted to folk art. In January 2007, the American folk artist Edward Hicks’ painting The Peaceable Kingdom sold for $6,176,000 at Christie’s.

Did You Know?

  • Terms that often overlap with folk art include outsider art, traditional art, primitive art, and tramp art.
  • Some items now considered antique folk art, including weathervanes, carved figurines, painted game boards, and other whimsical objects, were not originally intended to be art objects.
  • In the early 20th century, famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Natalia Goncharova drew inspiration from indigenous folk art native to Africa and Russia, respectively.
  • At its inception in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum lacked a permanent collection, endowment, and a building. It is now one of New York City’s cultural treasures with a collection of over 7,000 works.

National Commission for Culture and the Arts of Phillippines
The American Antiquarian Society
The Smithsonian American Art Museum
What Exactly Is Folk Art? by Priscilla Frank (Huffington Post)

Looking for Folk Art and Americana? View the catalogs for Sotheby’s Important Americana sales on January 18, January 19, January 20, and January 21.