Why do we like naïve art?

Late 19th-early 20th century American School, Still life with fish, after William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

The Association of British Naïve Artists publishes quite a long introduction to the history of naïve art on its website, reiterating the qualities of innocence, childlikeness and naturalness in the style or genre of painting which has come to be known as naïve.  In the course of this, it makes some statements which might perhaps be challenged; for instance, that ‘Cave men, Aboriginals, Bedouins and desert monks expressed their observations in pure unadulterated fashion, almost like that of a child’, or that ‘The professional has to master a technique in order to free himself yet the innocent is born free’.

 Horse from the caves of Lascaux

Shetland pony

If you start to look seriously at, for instance, cave paintings, you rapidly become aware that these are produced by artists who were very far from children in their ability to represent animals, and that a great deal of technique had been mastered before these anatomically very convincing horses, deer and bison appeared on the walls. If anything, the painters had to be extremely sophisticated in order to produce an accurate picture for their peers, who were looking with art-historically untutored eyes at animals they knew very well, because they saw them every day.

Bison from the caves of Altamira

 American bison

Tawaraya Sotatsu, fl. early 17th century; Cow (detail), Kyoto National Museum

These Paleolithic paintings, which date from 16,500 – 12,000 BC, have far more in common with the intellectual refinement and fluid dexterity of Japanese screen painting than they have with the work of an ‘innocent’ who has not tried to ‘master a technique’. And when it comes to drawing and painting, children are actually ‘innocent’, not only of technique, but of the power to see their subject.  They aren’t used to looking at things properly before they draw them, so they draw what they know (or think) is there, rather than what they see. In the sense that they don’t know the rules of perspective – or the way to represent volume, foreshortening and anatomy on a two-dimensional surface – their vision is innocent and unadulterated; but it’s a purely solipsistic vision, it’s not observation.

From Children’s paintings from Georgia

Moreover, children’s art is not pure and unadulterated: it does operate according to rules.  They aren’t the sort of rules which allow you to produce three-dimensional effects on a flat piece of paper: they’re the rules of shorthand – semiotics or hieroglyphs, where one thing stands for another. So, a band of blue right at the top of the painting stands for the sky; a yellow disc stands for the sun, and a triangular shape is a roof.

 From the 38th International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Art Lidice 2010

Similarly, an animal is an amorphously-shaped blob with legs, neck and tail of various lengths and large ears. That’s a very long way from a naturalistic bison with its hump, facial details, horns, chest folds, knees, hooves, musculature and rump all fluently drawn, in the right place and in proportion.

19th century British School,  Polled heifer, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

If we compare one of the 18th and 19th century paintings of farm and domestic animals, which usually jump to mind when the words ‘naïve art’ are mentioned, with the Altamira bison, it can be seen that knowing the rules of adult art doesn’t guarantee sophistication. The differences between the Victorian cow and the Paleolithic bison illustrated here are the differences between technically-accomplished and officially naïve paintings, and ‘childlike’ or ‘innocent vision’ has nothing to do with the case. The cow has been observed, unlike the child’s horse/ dog/ rabbit/ interchangeable mammal. All its characteristic features are there, many of them quite convincingly painted: it has general cow-like articulation and nicely-depicted hooves. But the general proportions, plasticity and integration with the setting are all wildly askew. It’s not terribly well-drawn; however, it’s not very badly done either – it’s somewhere between, in an area that we tend to find rather endearing.

 20th century American School, The Athlete, Museum of Bad Art

 This, in comparison, is bad art – officially stunningly awful, from the Museum of Bad Art – by someone who hasn’t observed (or has only superficially observed), and can’t draw what he/she has observed. This is not naïve, and definitely not endearing, and few people, apart from the perpetrator’s mother, would want it on their walls. Bad drawing, though, is not the sole preserve of bad artists:

 Detail of Pope’s hands

Yes, I know who drew these, and how many millions they’re worth; but the fact is, whatever Bacon could do, he couldn’t draw hands, and is always either leaving them out, hiding them, painting bunchy boneless fists, or giving in and letting us see his weakness. His sophistication and darkness is so much at the other extreme of the scale from naïve art, however, that it’s practically creeping up on it from the other direction.

Valentine’ cavalry trooper, c.1820, Denzil Grant Antiques, Bury St Edmunds

The Athlete is worlds apart from this cavalry trooper of c.1820 – here, the artist can’t draw hands, either, but the rest of it has a degree of competence, elegance and observation which pushes it over the border of bad drawing, and into attractive, desirable, naïve art.

 William Wheldon, The Nicholson family, 1856, Debenham Antiques, Suffolk

Possibly this is also true of the rather frightening Nicholson family, painted by one of their relatives, a William Wheldon; he was actually quite good at leaves, although his flowers leave a lot to be desired – but his sense of space can’t be examined too closely (what are the parents standing on? where are the lower parts of their bodies?). Nothing about this work is childlike or innocent; it’s full of observation – there’s just a disjunction between what’s been observed and how it has been expressed in paint.

Wm Merritt Chase, Still life (Fish from the Adriatic), c.1907-14, Chrysler Museum of Art

And this is what’s at work in our Still life with fish. The unknown painter has almost certainly been looking at similar compositions by an accomplished still life painter: very possibly the American artist, William Merritt Chase.  Chase (1849-1916) was born in Indiana, studied in New York, Munich and Italy, and returned to New York to teach. He painted portraits of many of the more notable of his contemporaries, as well as landscapes en plein air, and still life subjects. In the latter he often sets the shine of glazed or metal vessels against the texture of wood or cloth, and just as frequently introduces an group of dead fish into the composition. He captures the sheen and opalescent colours of the fish against dark grounds, which also set off the metal and porcelain dishes, and emphasize the classic nature of the genre and its bonds with works by Chardin, Melendez and Claesz. These works were very popular and sold for large sums, causing Chase to fret that he would go down in history as a ‘painter of fish’.

William Merritt Chase, Still life with fish, c.1908, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Many students passed through his New York classes and Long Island summer schools, and it is possible that the painter of this particular still life (below) was one of the more temporary of these students. This is a naïve version of a William Merritt Chase painting; neither ‘natural’, untutored nor childlike, it has passages of good painting, such as the red fish and the crab, whilst other areas have a much less sure grip of perspective and their placing in space. The uncertain drawing of the chased silver salt cellar, for example, and the tendency of some of the fish to be sited in a different space from the table-top, in combination with the beautifully-observed fish in the middle-ground, right, propel this work from a uniformly mediocre work into a much more interesting and thoroughly attractive genre, which can only be called ‘naïve’.

Late 19th-early 20th century American SchoolStill life with fish, after William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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