Art Styles Illustrating Boys' Fashions: American Primatives

Figure 1.--In many cases the individual artist is unknow with primitive or naive art. This painting was probably painted about 1845-50. The pantelettes suggest an earlier date is unlikely.

American primitive art is also commonly referred to as naive or folk art. It refers generally to the work of self-taught artists who create art in their own style and without the presumptions and inhibitions instilled by formal training. Naive artists are self-taught artists. Their fresh, uncluttered style is characterized by vibrant colours, definite shapes, and non-scientific perspective. The American primitive artists provided wonderful color images of fashions in Colonial America and the early 19th Century before the development and commercial success of photography. Many fascinating American primitives exist providing a wealth of information about children's fashions. While the artist is not known, in some cases the children depicted and the approximate date of the paintings are known. These portraits are some of the few sources of information as to what American boys were actually wearing in the early 19th century before the advent of photography. Thes artists are particularly important as unlike the work of the more accomplished artists, these primative/naive artists painted the children of more ordinary less wealthy families--giving a helpful glimse of popular fashion.

Naive Art

Naive art has existed throughout history, its origins lying in humankind's first attempts to draw or paint with colours. It was not until the 1960's, however, despite the impact on twentieth century modernism of the work of 19th century French naive painter Henri Rousseau, that naive art began to be accepted by major cultural institution around the world. Since that time, it has flourished on an unprecedented scale and has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications in Europe and North America. Primitive art was looked down on for many years. Today in art circles, the word "na´ve" is no longer a derogatory term but means simplistic, child-like and often untutored, autobiographical and story-telling. The world-wide upsurge of interest came about in the late 1890s with the work of Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau. Bright colour, pattern and storytelling play a large part in na´ve art, which is also often generally characterised by unreal perspective. Naive artists Naifs are usually (though not always) untutored. They often ork slowly and intuitively to present the subject with absolute fidelity and exact detail, depicting an unadulterated version of an orderly world in miniature.


White perspective is lacking, the often acurate, detailed rendendering of clothes and background provide a treasure trove of information to assess contemporary fashion. This is particularly important in assessing fashions before the late 19th century when ready-made fashions appeared. Earlier most fashions were individually sewn. Thus the the clothes worn by boys were often sewn by their mothers are individual seamstresses employed by their mothers. There were fashion magazines and illustrations in those magazines provide idealized images. But it is the primitive artists that provide accurate dtailed images of outfits worn by actual boys.


Many of the unknown painters were intenerate artists, traveling the back roads of America, in some cases doing portraits for room and board or supplies. They for the most part had no academic training for their profession. Ihe naive artist has no academic background. To a certain extent he also works without formal technical qualifications and with a remarkable indifference to perspective. Naive artists come from every conceivable socio-economic background and have the most widely differing occupations.

The Portraits

The portraits painted by primative or naive artists in the early 19th century or some of the few depictions available of boys clothing in America. American primitives focused on portraits because that was the principal outlet for their skills. Americans wanted portraits of themselves and their families in the days before photography. Particularly important is that while the perspective looks primitive as is the handling of light and shadow, the depictions of the clothing are very detailed an accurate. They even offer an advantage over the photography that appeared in the 1840s in that color is depicted and the materials more apparent, especially in the still primitive photographs of the 1840s and 50s.


These naive portraits provide a lpt of information about children and their lifestyles in the years before photography. Unlike photographs, painted portraits in general probably came from a generally more affluent element of society. The higher the quality of the portrait, probably the more affluent the family. This is important in assessing who was wearing what. Also the children were often painted with prosed possessions or pertinent backgrounds.


Uninfluenced by art traditions, naive artists come to grips with their personal experiences and paint pictures mirroring their memories, desires and dreams. The themes they choose are frequently related to their childhood, the place they were born in, the surroundings they grew up in, their workaday routine and festive occasions, but also encompass political, historical and social problems, not to mention fantasy utopian worlds. Naive artists are thus genuine personalities, distinguished by an original and unmistakable stylistic independence. They also have a relatively unabashed approach to art's formal demands, often delineating the significant detail with the most meticulous precision. Together with a deeply felt seriousness of approach - are the main characteristics of naive art.


The naive artist's attempts at perspective and spatial effects are evident to anyone looking at his pictures, but he is indifferent to such missing attributes, being concerned solely with the impact of the picture as a whole. Selecting the colours is never a problem. SeIf-assured, as if following the instructions of an innate colouring handbook, he applies the colours of his instinctive choice, sometimes surprisingly and boldly, yet invariably harmoniously. This is precisely the area in which the naive artist most obviously displays his inborn talent. Furthermore, national character in environmental, religious and social terms is more forcefully expressed in naive art than in any other art form, folk art excepted. The naive painter is more closely linked to these personal experiences of his than any other type of artist.

Country Trends

There were naive or primitive artists in both Europe and America. The difference is that in Europe there were schools and academic institutions where young people could study their craft. This cist money, but the instututions existed. Such schools and instututiins did not exist in America and only began to appear in the mid-19th century after the apparance of photography had already begun to affect the market for individual and family portraits. American primitive artists generally had no academic training at all. And there were not even museums where individuals could go and stuf=dy the ork of the great masters. Some traveled the back roads of rural America and sometimes painted a portrait for room and board. Others had studios in the still small cities in America duting the late 18th and early 19th century. Often the artist is not known, especially many of the works done by itenerate artists. Many other American primitive artists are known. While their work is often not technically correct with distorted perspectives, unrealistic anatomy, and unsophisticated use of light and shading. Even with these and other technical defincies, the American primitives provide many wonderful views of the clothes worn by children. Theese paintings provide detailed images of the designs and colors worn by children of all ages.

Individual Artists

HBC has found a number of naive artists who are known by name. We have fiund a number of these artists and would be interested in any additional artists with which readers are familiar. They have produced particularly interesting portraits by the following American primitives showing childrens' fashions during the late-18th and early-19th century. These of course are very valuable images done before the invention of photography created aow-cost way of creating portraits. Much of our knowledge of clothing and fashion from the 18th and early019th century comes from these primotive artists.


Many fascinating American primitives exist providing a wealth of information about children's fashions. While the artist is not known, in some cases the children depicted and the approximate date of the paintings are known.


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Created: December 2, 1999
Last updated: 6:32 PM 2/23/2012