PLAIN PAINTERS: MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN FOLK ART. (New Directions in American Art, no. 5)by John Michael Vlach

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  • PLAIN PAINTERS: MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN FOLK ART. (New Directions in AmericanArt, no. 5) by John Michael VlachReview by: Katharine MartinezArt Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 8, No. 2(Summer 1989), pp. 98-99Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Art Libraries Society of NorthAmericaStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 05:26

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  • 98 Art Documentation, Summer, 1989

    attention to the book design and production values, since, as in all examples of good design, they were not apparent at all.

    Unobtrusive clarity, fine and generous spacing, solid makeup are the watchwords of this volume, a pleasure to hold in hand and to read. This is the sort of book which makes re viewing a joy, and the review copy will (no, has) found a welcome place in my library, as it should in all libraries where the decorative arts or American history and civiliza tion are represented.

    Robert C. Kaufman Metropolitan Museum of Art

    (Editor's Note: American Seating Furniture, 1630-1730 was a recipient of ARLISINA's George Wittenborn Memoria/Award for works published in 1988.)

    PLAIN PAINTERS: MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN FOLK ART. / John Michael Vlach.?Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.?(New Directions in American Art, no. 5)?224 p.: ill.?ISBN 0-87474-926-3 (cl., alk. paper); 0-87474-925-5 (pa); LC 88-600013: $45.00 (cl.); $21.95 (pa).

    There are two opposing schools of thought about Ameri can folk art, one emphasizing its social context and the other concerned with aesthetics. According to certain scholars, in cluding folklorists such as John Vlach, the principal charac teristic of folk art is that it reflects community values based on collectively held views passed down from earlier gen erations, and that it serves to foster bonds within the community. In the case of painting, Vlach would describe Pennsylvania German fraktur and street murals by Mexican Americans as folk art, and would exclude all easel painting. Vlach is one of several scholars who view folk art as a 20th century construct. Kenneth L. Ames recently described folk art as "a well-intended and pious fraud... The most enduring function of folk art has been to serve as a repository for cherished ideals. Folk art objects have generally been used to evoke a 'golden age' when life was more authentic, honest, individualistic, spontaneous, unselfconcious, democratic, in deed more American. If these qualities were in danger at any given time, folk art seemed to demonstrate that they had once prospered and were, therefore, attainable" ("Folk or Art? A Symposium," Antiques 135 [January 1989]: 277).

    The aesthetic view of folk art is best described in The Flowering of American Folk Art 1776-1876 by Alice Winches ter and Jean Lipman (New York: Viking Press, 1974). In their view, the folk art object need not be seen in the context of its environment in order to be understood and appreciated. It retains certain universal, timeless qualities inherent to all

    works of art: hence the great interest in comparing certain folk art with abstract painting. (See, for example, Jean Lip man's Provocative Parallels [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975].) Folk art curators, dealers, and collectors who share Winches ter and Lipman's views were incensed when Kenneth L. Ames wrote that "students of all aspects of material culture need to pursue historical questions without becoming bogged down in the usually irrelevant issue of artistic merit" (Beyond Necessity: Art in the Folk Tradition [Winterthur: Win terthur Museum, 1977], 16). The difference in opinion be tween the two camps might apear to be harmless and rather academic, but in the eyes of the players it has tremendous significance. As the folklorist Simon J. Bronner has so aptly noted, 'The battle over the meaning of folk involved different visions of America" (Simon J. Bronner, Grasping Things: Folk

    Material Culture and Mass Society in America (Louisville: Uni versity Press of Kentucky, 1986], 192).

    Vlach's purpose in Plain Painters is to reexamine the cur rent aesthetic approach to folk art preferred by art curators and collectors, specifically the ideas put forth in The Flower ing of American Folk Art 1776-1876. According to Lipman and

    Winchester, folk art works are "characterized by an artistic innocence that distinguishes them from...fine arts." Folk art " not affected by the stylistic trends of academic art." In their view, folk art exhibits "qualities of vigor, honesty, inven

    tiveness, imagination and a strong sense of design" (p. 9). Viach proposes that an alternative phrase "plain painting" be substituted for folk painting, and he cites the use of "plain song" as a model for his use of the term plain in relation to art. He defines plain painting as those works in which the conventions of fine art are present but not fully deployed. The result is a simpler, more modest version of what poten tially could have been complex under different circumstances.

    The critical element in defining plain painting is to deter mine what was the artist's intention. Vlach looks at the pro cess of becoming a master artist, a process in which the painter strives to develop an ability to depict three dimen sions and reproduce colors as they occur in nature. Neces sary to this process is experience, practice, and exposure to academic training. He examines the early work of Benjamin

    West, John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Samuel F. B. Morse whom he describes as plain painters in that stage of their careers. He subsequently looks at the artis tic development of three "folk" painters: Erastus Salisbury Field, William Matthew Prior, and John S. Blunt, concluding that "It is, then, not the nature of their works that set plain painters apart from fine arts; it is a difference in the level of mastery over the conventions of technique" (p. 32). Plain painters such as Field were slow learners who intended to be masters but were hindered by lack of training, differences in talent, artistic experiences, and social contexts. In Vlach's view, "the key to an accurate interpretation of plain painting resides in understanding the evolution of an artist's talents. Plain painting can represent an early phase of an artist's growth, or it can represent a symptom of stagnation, distrac tion, or confusion" (p. 33).

    Vlach provides the reader with an excellent description of the process of becoming an artist during the 19th century in his chapter "Art by the Book." He discusses the great variety of instructional manuals that were available, plus the nu merous illustrated magazines and pattern books that were intended for copying. Citing the career of Joseph Whiting

    Stock, who spent most of his life in rural New York State restricted to a wheel chair, Vlach argues that many painters

    were dependent on published sources for their instruction. Like Stock, many were prevented from becoming master art ists, despite their best efforts, by geographic isolation and lack of exposure to academic training. The last portion of his book is devoted to redefining the

    work of the Freake Limner, Pieter Vanderlyn, Edward Hicks, Grandma Moses, and several contemporary folk artists using the criteria Vlach established in the first half of his book. The section on the Freake Limner, for example, illustrates the weakness of writings by Mary Black, Jean Lipman, and Robert Bishop by showing that the painter w?s not pursuing a unique and personal vision, but rather was sytematically striving to emulate Elizabethan portraits.

    Vlach's most compelling statements about plain painting are to be found in chapter 3, in which he deals with the issue of taste during the 19th century. It was a time when visual images proliferated and the public had an insatiable desire for consumer goods. Vlach draws on the writings of aca demic social historians such as Edward Pessen to demon strate that it was also a time of enormous economic ine quality. The pervasive materialism of the antebellum period was an inducement for itinerant con men to pose as artists. What has been embraced in recent years as folk art was, in Vlach's argument, more often pathetic attempts at painting? anything to make an easy dollar. Vlach demonstrates that the reaction to these tricksters was often violent. Yet painting? particularly portraits?continued to be immensely popular, in part because having one's portrait painted was equated with high social class. Intellectuals were not impressed with the work of itinerant and untrained painters. Vlach quotes exten sively from numerous cultural commentators including

    William Dunlap, John Neal, Mark Twain, Pavel Svinin, and Samuel F. B. Morse who dismissed plain paintings as "wretched," and their painters as "quacks." The worst quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes who described itinerant folk painters as "wandering Thugs of Art" (p. 62). Even Henry Tuckerman, the champion of American painting during the

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  • Art Documentation, Summer, 1989 99

    19th century, recommended a reproductive engraving of a good European painting over the "average crude efforts of American painters" (Henry T. Tuckerman, American Artist Life [New York: Putnam, 1867], p. 36). While the intelligentsia sneered at plain painting, in Vlach's view, the paintings were "devices of social control..." (by) "satisfying their owners's per ceived needs for luxurious property they deflected personal criticism away from the elite group determined to keep the common people under their command." Plain paintings were, in Vlach's mind, "failed works of art that reinforced the hegemony of the old-money elite" (p. 83). One class strove to emulate the other, yet no matter how hard the efforts, they could never win the approval of the cultural elite. In this way, hierarchical attitudes about society are applied to works of art.

    Clearly, Vlach's book will not endear him to the principal players in today's healthy folk art market. The public would much rather believe the more cheerful, positive view of folk art held by such writers as Lipman. A recent article in 77?e New York Times by Rita Reif entitled "They Were Clean and Neat but They Didn't Smile Much" perpetuates the traditional folk art attitude: "The untroubled, well-scrubbed faces of these people and their neat farms...convey the never-never land charm found in much of folk art" (The New York Times [February 5,1989]: H35). Such statements deny any life (with its accompanying failures and triumphs) to the artists who created these "never-never land" scenes and portraits.

    Plain Painters makes a convincing argument for reassess ing, not just American folk art, but American painting al together. Vlach addresses art historians in their own terms, using visual analysis as his chief methodological tool. His argument is compelling even if one does not agree with his attitudes about art in general and folk art in particular. Under graduates and the general public may find the text to be demanding, especially in the sections on the Freake Limner and Edward Hicks. The book is well constructed, and sturdily bound, with clear black-and-white illustrations that are well placed in relation to the text. The only problem I encountered with the illustrations was that the dark tones in the color plates tended to be too dark, and the color reproduction of

    Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary was backwards. Such irritations are the fault of the publisher, but should not inhibit librarians from purchasing this important book. It is bound to stimulate the study of American painting, and not just folk art painting alone. The ensuing debates, no matter how emo tional, can only help to stimulate the dialogue among cultural historians about American art.

    Katharine Martinez Winterthur Library

    THE INFANTA ADVENTURE AND THE LOST MANET / An drew Brainerd.?Long Beach, Michigan City, Ind.: Reichl Press, 1988.?204 p.; ill.?ISBN 09618793-1-9; LC 87-61960: $49.95.

    The Warburg Library used to reserve a "poison shelf" for romantic glorifications of the Italian Renaissance. Our own catalogers may need to create a special classification for Hollywood art history. This book, for example, which might more accurately have been called "Mr. Smith Goes to The Louvre," is an unmistakably Capraesque tale of an innocent Everyman who singlehandedly takes on the corrupt world of art connoisseurship.

    Connoisseurship is, of course, the Bermuda Triangle of art history. Not a few reputations have suffered shipwreck in its waters, and many contemporary art historians, if they pay it any mind at all, seem to regard connoisseurship with a deri sive skepticism suggestive of an uneasy professional con science. For connoisseurship, at least as practiced by pre vious generations, is widely perceived to be irredeemably compromised by its guilty association with the art market. Connoisseurship is fast going the way of alchemy, and like the latter, may soon be superseded by chemistry.

    Our author, Mr. Brainerd, shows no awareness of the ongo

    ing critque of connoisseurship within the art historical pro fession, a critique which goes back at least as far as the great Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891), who a century ago attempted to introduce scientific rigor into an activity which yields all too easily to mysticism. While outsiders should, of course, be encouraged to participate in the dialogue on connoisseur ship, the value of their contribution will inevitably depend upon how well they do their homework. The fact that Mr. Brainerd so grotesquely overestimates the novelty and im portance of his own contribution suggests that he hasn't done his homework thoroughly enough.

    Fortunately?or unfortunately?Mr. Brainerd is ultimately less interested in the state of the art of connoisseurship than in the attribution of a specific painting. Not surprisingly, Mr. Brainerd is, or was, the owner of that painting. Enter the "Infanta" of his title.

    The Infanta is a painting purchased by Mr. Brainerd ip 1967 for somewhere in the vicinity of $8,500.00?as a Vel?zquez. The anonymous Dutch dealer who sold it to him (Mr. Brain erd rather coyly withholds the now deceased dealer's name) certified in writing that the painting is a portrait from life of Princess Maria Margarita of Spain, and an earlier version of Vel?zquez's Llnfante Marguerite in the Louvre (1654). The sub ject of the painting will be most familiar as the charming little girl in Vel?zquez's slightly later Las Meni?as of 1656. The dealer specifically stated that the painting is "an original work" (p. 73).

    Mr. Brainerd tells us that his first viewing of the Infanta produced "a unique reaction: It brought tears to my eyes" (p. 72, his emphasis). Evidently the condition did not recur

    when, after investing "over two years, and several thousand dollars, attempting to identify the painting of the Infanta as the work of Velasquez" (p. 93), Mr. Brainerd finally had to admit that he'd been had. His Infanta was illegitimate. Far from being an early version of Vel?zquez's Louvre portrait, it is a late copy. The question inevitably arose: If not Vel?zquez, then who

    dunnit? With this book, Mr. Brainerd, a tax lawyer, brings a pater

    nity suit against Edouard Manet. Manet, he alleges, fathered the Infanta sometime ca. 1859. If Mr. Brainerd is correct, his Infanta would still be a copy, of course, but also a valuable product of the Spanish revival in 19th-century French paint ing, a variation on a theme by Vel?zquez executed by none other than the founding father of modernism. Having evi dently failed to convince the experts, Mr. Brainerd is appeal ing to the higher court of his readers. Mr. Brainerd's theatrical title is thus seriously misleading.

    His book is not devoted to the "adventure" that awaited him in his quest for the "Infanta's" true identity. He devotes only a few pages to the actual purchase, an account bizarrely cast in

    what might be called the schizoid third person. "The 'prove nance' of the painting," it begins, "can best be described by Andrew Brainerd... He describes the incident in this way..." Then Mr. Brainerd proceeds rather histrionically to put him self on the witness stand! Brainerd also says little indeed about the years he spent trying to authenticate his "Vel?z quez" and the three other paintings he purchased at the same time, though his text is maddeningly punctuated by full-page reproductions of letters from his correspondence

    with several art historians. The second part of Mr. Brainerd's title, too, which begs a

    crucial question, is misleading to the point of being tenden tious. For Mr. Brainerd's "lost Manet" may well be a ghost

    Manet. As he tacitly and grudgingly admits (pp. 63ff.), there is not a single shred of documentary evidence that Manet ever executed such a painting, though several Manet scholars have preceded Brainerd in quoting Adolphe Tabarant's un supported opinion that he did. If, when the "adventure" ends, Mr. Brainerd's Infanta should turn out to be an authentic Manet, it will in any case be less a "lost" Manet than an undocumented one, the word "lost" suggesting erroneously that Manet scholars are beating the bushes to find Manet's missing Infanta. On the contary, they have more candidates for the role than they can handle. Mr. Brainerd accom modatingly reproduces two in addition to his own favorite.

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    Article Contentsp. 98p. 99

    Issue Table of ContentsArt Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 55-112Front MatterTHE EVALUATION OF HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS: Considerations for Visual Resource Curators and Librarians in Museums and Archives [pp. 55-60]FIRST STEPS IN PLANNING THE AUTOMATION OF A SLIDE COLLECTION [pp. 61-65]REPORT: A SURVEY OF REFERENCE SERVICES IN ART LIBRARIES [pp. 67-69]REPORTS OF CONFERENCES &MEETINGS [pp. 70-72]ARLIS/NA NEWS SECTIONARLIS/NA 1988 ANNUAL REPORT [pp. 73-74]FROM THE PRESIDENT [pp. 74-74]FROM THE TREASURER [pp. 75-75]NEWS FROM THE CHAPTERS [pp. 75-77]ARCHITECTURE SIG [pp. 78-81]CATALOGING AND INDEXING SYSTEMS SIG [pp. 81-82]SERIALS SIG [pp. 82-82]VISUAL RESOURCES SIG: Visual Resource Collection Fundraising: An Art School Annual Sale [pp. 82-84]MUSEUM TOL: Small and Medium-Sized Art Museum Libraries: The Problems of Interdependence and Independence [pp. 84-84]

    GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS [pp. 85-86]ON PRESERVATION [pp. 86-87]BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES [pp. 87-88]NEWS &NOTES [pp. 88-89]THE REVIEW SECTIONReview: untitled [pp. 91-92]Review: untitled [pp. 92-93]Review: untitled [pp. 93-95]Review: untitled [pp. 95-95]Review: untitled [pp. 95-96]Review: untitled [pp. 96-97]Review: untitled [pp. 97-97]Review: untitled [pp. 97-98]Review: untitled [pp. 98-99]Review: untitled [pp. 99-101]Review: untitled [pp. 101-103]Review: untitled [pp. 103-103]Review: untitled [pp. 104-104]Review: untitled [pp. 104-104]Review: untitled [pp. 105-105]Review: untitled [pp. 105-106]Review: untitled [pp. 106-106]Review: untitled [pp. 106-107]Review: untitled [pp. 107-108]Review: untitled [pp. 108-109]BRIEF NOTICESReview: untitled [pp. 109-109]Review: untitled [pp. 109-109]Review: untitled [pp. 109-109]Review: untitled [pp. 109-110]Review: untitled [pp. 110-110]Review: untitled [pp. 110-110]Review: untitled [pp. 110-110]Review: untitled [pp. 110-110]

    PUBLICATIONS RECEIVED [pp. 111-112]Back Matter


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