A stylized portrait of abundance

'Folk art' is something of a catchall term. It covers a range of artistic endeavor from highly skilled to naively awkward, from peasant tradition to drawing-room gentility, from matter-of-fact artisanship to hopeful amateurism.

Folk artists often represent the world as if it were composed of many separate objects, including people, animals, plants, fruit. They are not properly integrated into some larger landscape or picture-space, or transformed and unified by all-encompassing light. The world of folk art seems oddly without light and shadow. Everything is distinct, rather precise, somewhat stiff, carefully outlined, sometimes tending toward silhouette.

Much folk art could be called "homemade" or "do-it-yourself." Still life, a recognized genre in "serious" art, was particularly favored by women, who were taught to think of painting as a socially acceptable female occupation, like making paper cutouts, sewing samplers, and embroideries. To make still-life pictures, they sometimes used stencils or copied prints. Instruction books on making paintings were eagerly studied.

In "The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876," by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester (1974), typical still lifes are described as "homely symbols of abundance - the groaning board, a basket overflowing with fruit, a vase of flowers...." But the "abundance" in such images is surprisingly restrained. The schema of these pictures needed perhaps to be rather simplified and measurable.

"Bowl of Fruit," shown here, is basically frontal and symmetrical, to make it easy for an amateur painter to place the bowl, table, and curtains in the composition. Even the plates and knives, which are tricky to draw, follow a kind of formula.

At least one other strikingly similar painting still exists, very close in dimensions and format. Yet the subtle differences between them show to what extent the artist, though carefully following instructions, still imposed a personal touch.

One feels that the painter of this modest still life would be amazed that it had an honored place in a remarkable private art collection. The artist would be even more astounded that it was one of many works donated to America's National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The painting claims little more for itself than a cheerful hanging on a bedroom or dining-room wall.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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