The Inspirations of Five Well-Known Folk Artists

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

John Younie Luyster (ca. 1838) by Ammi PhillipsChrysler Museum of Art

Discover what makes this artistic style so unique

Folk art has a long history and there is no one definition of the phenomenon. Traditionally, folk art is produced from an indigenous culture and is characterized by a naive style, in which customary rules of proportion and perspective are not employed. Other defining features of folk art is that it is often handmade, is both decorative and utilitarian, and is of, by, and for the people.

What sets folk art apart from fine art is that it is not influenced by movements and in many cases it excludes works executed by professional artists. Art terms that often overlap with folk art are naïve art, tribal art, primitivism, and outsider art. Sometimes these are used interchangeably but a key difference is that folk art expresses cultural identity by conveying shared cultural aesthetics, values, and social issues. The beauty of this phenomenon is that it reflects the traditional art forms of diverse community groups.

As a result of the varied geographical and temporal prevalence and diversity of folk art, it makes it difficult to describe as a whole, though some patterns can be seen in the work shared below. Here we look at some of the most well-known folk artists to get a sense of how they created their work and what inspired them.

Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)


Ammi Phillips was an American traveling portrait painter who worked across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York for over 50 years. Phillips was self-taught and at 21 he put up adverts to paint people’s portraits. He made it clear to his potential subjects that if they didn’t like the picture, they didn’t have to pay for it. Phillips would also paint his subjects in the prevailing fashion of the day and the artist often changed his style depending on which decade he was painting in.

Phillips adopted a wandering lifestyle as demand for his skills was initially low. This romantic approach contrasts with the bourgeois domesticity of his portraits, which were always set inside. It’s what makes his classification as a folk artist interesting. The artists’ figures are simplified and flattened, but their faces are so sensitively drawn that they seem like real individuals and not just the generalized types that the subjects of folk portraiture can sometimes appear to be.

Leonard William Ten Broeck (1797-1852) (1832) by Ammi Phillips (1782-1865)Albany Institute of History & Art

Grandma Moses (1860–1961)


Anna Mary Robertson Moses, known by her nickname Grandma Moses, began painting at the age of 78 and is often celebrated for successfully beginning a career in the arts later in life. The American folk artist’s work can be described as simple realism with an air of nostalgia and thoughtful approach to color. Grandma Moses portrayed farm life and rural countrysides, which won her a wide following.

Moses painted “what used to be” and she often omitted features of modern life, such as tractors and telephone poles. Her style is less individual and more primitive, despite her rejection of basic perspective (a common characteristic of folk art). Initially she created simple compositions or copied existing images but as her career advanced she create complicated, panoramic scenes of rural life. Moses created over 1,500 canvases in the three decades she painted, and she initially charged $3 to $5 for a painting, depending upon its size. As her fame increased, her works were sold for $8,000 to $10,000.

Painting:The Old Hoosick Bridge (1947)The Strong National Museum of Play

Painting:In the Park Painting:In the Park (1947)The Strong National Museum of Play

Jamini Roy (1887–1972)


Jamini Roy was an Indian artist who began his career as a commissioned portrait painter. In the early 1920s he abruptly gave that up in an effort to discover his own style of painting. Roy was taught at the Government College of Art, Kolkata, with Abanindranath Tagore (an instigator who led the development of modern Indian art) as vice principal. Formally taught under the prevailing academic tradition of Classical nudes and oil paintings, Roy had realized afterwards that he needed to draw inspiration from his own culture, as opposed to Western traditions.

He looked to the living folk and tribal art for inspiration and was most influenced by the Kalighat Pat (Kalighat painting), which was a style of art with bold sweeping brush-strokes. Roy soon developed a new style based on Bengali folk traditions and with his work he aimed to capture the essence of simplicity embodied in the life of the indigenous people; to make art accessible to a wider section of people; and to give Indian art its own identity. His contribution to the emergence of modern art in India is still celebrated today.

Krishna Jasoda (Undated) by Jamini RoyMuseum of Art & Photography

Painting of Dancing Gopi (1950s) by Jamini RoyRoyal Ontario Museum

William Johnson (1901–1970)


William Johnson was an African-American painter. Born in Florence, South Carolina, he became a student at the National Academy of Design in New York City. He later lived and worked in France, where he was exposed to modernism. After Johnson married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake, the couple lived for some time in Scandinavia. It was there that he was influenced by the strong folk art tradition. The couple moved to the United States in 1938 and Johnson eventually found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, through the Federal Art Project.

Though Johnson was never able to achieve financial stability through his art, he continued painting throughout his life and his style evolved from realism, to expressionism, to a powerful folk style, for which he is best known. He immersed himself in African-American culture and traditions, producing paintings that were characterized by their folk art simplicity. Johnson was determined to "paint his own people” and he celebrated African-American culture and imagery in urban settings in pieces such as Cafe, and in rural settings like Sowing. However, the artist didn’t shy away from the harsher realities of African-American life, responding to race riots that were happening at the time and the lives of his ancestors.

Café (ca. 1939-1940) by William H. JohnsonSmithsonian American Art Museum

Sowing (ca. 1942) by William H. JohnsonGibbes Museum of Art

Howard Finster (1916–2001)


Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher and bicycle repairman, became one of the most notable folk artists in America, mainly for his sculptures. He claimed to be inspired by God to spread the gospel and this led to the design of Paradise Garden, a folk art sculpture garden with over 46,000 pieces of art, which is considered to be his greatest work.

In regards to his two-dimensional works, Finster focused on a diverse range of subjects including pop culture icons like Elvis Presley, historical figures like George Washington and Ronald Reagan, religious images like John the Baptist, UFOs and aliens, war, and politics. His paintings were colorful and detailed and used flat picture plane without perspective, often covered with words, especially Bible verses. Every painting also has a number: God had asked him to create 5,000 paintings to spread the gospel and Finster wanted to keep track. He finished the 5,000 a few days before Christmas in 1985, but continued painting and numbering until the day he died. By 1989, he was already numbering in the ten thousands.

City of Morlatia (1985/1985) by Howard FinsterFlorida State University Museum of Fine Arts

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