Editorial Feature

What Is Naive Art?

Discover how the genre was eventually accepted by the art world

Naive art could easily be dismissed as art that’s created by people who “don’t know what they’re doing”, but that undermines the raw creativity found within works of the movement and its uninhibited and instinctive approach to materials, composition and ideas.

Before the 20th century, in its most basic sense naive art was any form of visual art created by a person who lacked the formal education and training a professional artist undergoes. When a trained artists emulates this aesthetic, it is often referred to as primitivism, pseudo-naive art or faux naive art.

The Hungry Lion Attacking An Antelope by Henri Rousseau (From the collection of Fondation Beyeler)

Naive art is characterized by a childlike simplicity and frankness, and often there’s an awkward relationship with the formal qualities of painting, for instance ignoring the traditional three rules of perspective. These were defined by the Progressive Painters of the Renaissance, which said that to create a balanced work of art, artists must decrease the size of objects proportionally with distance, use muted colors with distance and decrease of the precision of details with distance.

Ignoring these so-called rules is essentially what naive art does, producing: works that appear “geometrically erroneous” with skewed perspectives and uneven shapes; a strong use of pattern; bold color regardless of the composition; and details appear that just as rich whether they're in the foreground or background.

Little Walter's Toys by August Macke (From the collection of Städel Museum)

Unlike folk art, which adopts a similar simplistic approach, naive art doesn’t necessarily derive from a distinct cultural context or tradition. Parallels have also been drawn between naive art and outsider art, but while makers in both these areas have no training or hold a degree, outsider artists typically have little to no contact with the mainstream art world. Their work often explores extreme mental states, unconventional ideas or elaborate fantasy worlds.

It’s unclear when naive artists first appeared on the scene, as from the beginning of art history right up to today, these artists have unconsciously created works we still admire. However, it was first considered as an artform in the 20th century, when a handful of artists openly acknowledged naive art as an inspiration.

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Improvisation 28 by Vasily Kandinsky (From the collection of Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation)

This first real presence was In 1912, when Almanach Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider Almanac) was published. It was a collection of essays about art and a selection of work by a group of artists called Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, who were united in their rejection of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München. The group was founded by a number of Russian emigrants including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, and native German artists, such as Franz Marc, August Macke and Gabriele Münter. They decided that the principles of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München had become too strict and traditional, despite Kandinsky founding the group himself in 1909.

The work within the almanac was dominated by primitive, folk, children’s and naive art with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, and Russian folk art. There were works from well-known artists including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau, but these were all outnumbered by 13 works from child artists.

The Dream by Franz Marc (From the collection of Museo Thyssen - Bornemisza)
Four Girls by August Macke (From the collection of Museum Kunstpalast)

Rousseau was a key figure in naive art, and while the almanac brought his work to the attention of other art circles, experts now say the term naive art originated in 1885 when artist Paul Signac became aware of the talents of Rousseau and set about organizing exhibitions of his work in a number of big galleries.

Rousseau started painting seriously in his 40s and by age 49 he retired from his job as a toll and tax collector to work on his art full-time. The artist claimed he had “no other teacher than nature”, although he admitted he did receive advice from established painters Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau (From the collection of MoMA)
Scene in Bagneux on the Outskirts of Paris by Henri Rousseau (From the collection of Ohara Museum of Art)

Self-taught Rousseau is most known for his jungle scene paintings, despite the fact he never left France or saw a jungle. His inspiration came from children’s books and the botanical gardens of Paris, and he claimed to invent a new style of "portrait-landscape painting" where he’d first paint a scene and then depict a person or animal in the foreground. As a result, his paintings often appeared flat and childlike, and while this is praised today, back then Rousseau’s style was disparaged by critics and ridiculed.


Rousseau influenced many avant-garde painters including Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Max Beckmann, and the Surrealists, who adopted the artist’s sense of freedom and instinctive approach to composition when it came to creating work.

Perseus triptych by Max Beckmann (From the collection of Museum Folkwang)
Detail of The Great Parade by Fernand Léger (From the collection of Museu do Caramulo)

Other important naive artists like Antonio Ligabue, an Italian artist who gained recognition for his work during the late 1940s, and Nikifor, a Russian naive painter who created over 40,000 works, demonstrated that formal education wasn’t a precursor of creating art that moved and intrigued its audience. These artists paved the way for a renewed approach to art in the way that trends and proper form were ignored, and while conventional success was desired, a less inhibited way of working was encouraged.

Glenrowan, Ned Kelly series by Sidney Nolan (From the collection of National Gallery of Australia)
Kelly and horse by Sidney Nolan (From the collection of Canberra Museum and Gallery)

In fact many artists working at the same time or just after Rousseau seemed to be developing their own interpretation of naive art that also drew inspiration from folk art. Artists like Sidney Nolan, who created landscapes that aimed to celebrate Australian history; Grandma Moses who started her artistic career at 78 and was known for her take on American realism; Horace Pippin, the African-American painter who featured the injustice of slavery and American segregation prominently in many of his works; and even Croatian artist Ivan Generalić who depicted rural scenes with a political slant, all had little to no training but let their experiences, heritage and cultural background to inform their work. The result is work that is honest, accessible and allows viewers to gain an insight into the minds of artists who've taken an alternative path to the art schools and collectives that were touted as the only way to access the art world.

Despite its humble beginnings, naive art is now a fully recognized art genre represented in galleries worldwide and adopted by numerous visual artists and illustrators all over the world.

The Old Hoosick Bridge by Grandma Moses (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)
Old Black Joe by Horace Pippin (From the collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Cows in the woods by Ivan Generalic (From the collection of Koprivnica Town Museum)
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