Folk Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®


When we think of art, most of us perhaps think of the great works of painting and sculpture created by master artists. This is called fine art. It is created by talented individuals who often spend years in art schools learning formal artistic techniques. But fine art is actually only a very small percentage of the art that is made around the world. Every country and community has its folk art. Folk art includes paintings, carvings, furniture, textiles, and other objects produced by people using traditional techniques passed down to them through the generations. Most folk artists learn by watching their elders or by becoming apprentices in a craft. Others are self-taught. Some folk art is simple, undecorated craftwork created for everyday use. Some is highly decorated, specially painted or carved art made for an important purpose.

Throughout history, each culture has produced its own varieties of folk art. This article focuses on American folk art. In particular, it discusses the folk art of the English-speaking people who settled in the eastern part of the United States in the 1600's, 1700's, and 1800's. These original European immigrants were the first to produce a large, identifiable type of folk art. It is now known as "Anglo-American." Later, they were joined by other European peoples, as well as Africans and Asians. All these people brought their own styles of folk art with them to their new country.


Most folk painters of the 1700's and 1800's were professionals trained in the traditions of their craft. Multitalented artists, they did many different kinds of painting to earn a living. These included portraits and landscapes as well as tavern signs, houses, furniture, room interiors, and sailing ships.

Before photography became popular in the late 1800's, people were eager to have painters make portraits of family members. Thus many painters traveled from town to town, offering their services to people in each place they stopped.

Many folk portrait painters showed high levels of skill and talent. Others worked quickly with poor results. The portraits generally followed a standard format. They showed people in stiff poses. For example, the people were seated or standing, often holding a book or some other object. Children were shown in these formal poses, too. They sometimes held their favorite toys or pets.

In most folk art portraits, the greatest attention was given to the face, to capture a likeness of the subject. The rest of the figure and the background often had a flat, simplified look. The portraits were very popular, especially in small towns and rural areas. Today they provide a fascinating record of the clothes and furnishings of the past.

The large portraits painted by traveling artists were hung in the parlors of many homes, where visitors would see them. As a hobby, many people also made small watercolor portraits of friends and family members. Silhouettes cut from paper were another popular way of capturing a likeness.

Folk art painters also produced landscapes, seascapes, and other scenes. Seascapes generally showed famous ships or naval battles. Most landscapes were peaceful, idealized views of homes, farms, and towns.

Historic events and scenes from the Bible were also favorite subjects for folk painters, both amateur and professional. So were still-life scenes of flowers, fruit, and everyday objects that were painted by girls as part of their schoolwork. In the 1800's another kind of painting became popular: the memorial. These works were made to mark the death of a family member. In somber tones, they generally showed family members gathered around the tombstone of the departed one. Sometimes they showed people draped across the stone, sobbing with grief.

Births, marriages, and other important life events were often recorded on documents decorated by folk artists. In Pennsylvania and some midwestern communities settled by German immigrants, these documents were called fraktur. A fraktur combined decorative lettering with elaborate and colorful watercolor designs. These included hearts, flowers, animals, and human figures. Fraktur birth and marriage certificates hung on the walls of many homes. Fraktur techniques were also used to illustrate Bible stories and other favorite legends and tales.

In many fraktur pieces, the writing is as pretty as the design. In fact, before the days of typewriters and computers, penmanship was an art form. This art form is known as calligraphy. Schoolchildren were drilled in penmanship techniques by professional penmanship masters. People who had mastered those techniques often showed off their skills by creating gifts or presentation pieces for friends and relatives. In these works, the words take second place to the elaborate pictures and designs formed entirely by the calligrapher's free-flowing pen strokes.


The earliest folk sculpture in America was created by artists and craftsmen trained in traditional woodcarving techniques. Many were ship's carvers who produced figureheads and sternboards for sailing vessels. A figurehead is a carved figure, usually of a woman, that decorates the bow, or front, of a ship. A sternboard is a carved piece for a ship's stern, or rear.

By the mid-1800's, carvers were also creating free-standing figures that were used to advertise cigars and other tobacco products. Large, often life-size figures were placed in front of tobacconists' shops or in shop windows. Smaller ones were set on countertops. These figures included a wide range of characters--Indians, soldiers, pot-bellied politicians, and Cuban and Turkish figures advertising cigars from those countries.

Other shopkeepers, from shoemakers to grocers, also used carved figures as advertisements. Carved poles with brightly painted stripes were used to mark barbershops. In each case, the carvings made the shops easy to identify. They also reflected the skill and creativity of their makers.

Aboard whaling ships, sailors whiled away the hours at sea by carving delicate designs in the teeth and bones of whales. This technique is called scrimshaw. Some of these pieces were purely decorative. But others were made for a specific purpose—perhaps kitchen utensils or yarn winders.

Weathervanes also combined beauty with a purpose. They helped people predict the weather, since certain kinds of weather tend to come with winds from certain directions. But, perched on the rooftops of all sorts of buildings, weathervanes were also decorative sculpture. Most vanes were silhouettes cut from sheets of tin or iron, or molded shapes of copper or zinc.

The design of a weathervane often indicated the use of the building it adorned. There were fish vanes on fish markets, for example, while sheep and cows sat atop barns. But butterflies, eagles, Indians, and other fanciful designs were also used.

Another important type of folk art were decoys. Decoys are wooden models of ducks, geese, and fish used by hunters and fishermen to lure their prey. Originally made by Native Americans, decoys were carved and painted in a host of realistic shapes and sizes.

Children's toys were also made by hand. Many were carved of wood. Animal figures, often set on wooden wheels, were especially popular. Relatively few of these hand-carved wooden toys survive today. They were evidently well loved and used by their owners.

Not all folk art sculpture was designed with a specific use in mind. Many pieces were meant simply to delight the eye. Figures of people and animals--cats, eagles, lions, and imaginary beasts--decorated many homes in the 1800's. Some were carved from pine and brightly painted. Others were ceramic, made by potters as gifts. Many of these figures show their subjects in comical poses. Because of this, and because they had no use other than personal enjoyment, these sculptures became known as "whimsies."

Somewhere between whimsies and toys were the whirligigs, or wind toys. These sat on posts or fences outside many homes in the 1800's. They were carved figures that, in place of arms, had broad paddles that twirled in the breeze. Often the whirligig makers chose military officers and policemen as subjects, poking fun at their serious expressions and stiff posture.

Furniture and other Household Objects

Some of the most interesting folk art includes the hundreds of handmade objects that filled homes in the 1700's and 1800's. Furniture, especially chests, chairs, tables, and beds, was carved and sometimes painted with colorful designs or with false woodgrain patterns. Geometric and floral patterns were stenciled on walls and worked into floor coverings. Butter molds, pastry boards, and walking sticks all provided an outlet for the woodcarver's artistic expression.

Potters produced large quantities of decorated crocks, jugs, plates, and other tableware in local workshops in almost every community. Tinsmiths made metal pots and boxes that were painted with bright floral designs. Designs were pierced into tin lanterns. This made the lanterns cast patterned shadows.

Fabric provided another outlet for artistic expression, especially for women. Decorative patterns were used to make everything from embroidered table covers to bed linens. Handmade quilts are perhaps the best-known examples of folk art in fabric. Some were made in classic patterns of flowers and geometric shapes. Others featured unique designs dreamed up by the maker. And some were album quilts. These were designed and made by a group, with each person contributing a square to the design.

Some of the most strikingly colorful geometric quilts were produced by members of a religious group known as the Amish. The Amish settled in parts of Pennsylvania and the Midwest in the 1700's and 1800's. Of Swiss and German heritage, the Amish chose to live together in strongly traditional communities. To this day, their arts and crafts express their distinct culture.

Another important religious community was that of the Shakers. Originally of English heritage, the Shakers established several settlements in the Northeast and the South in the late 1700's and early 1800's. They believed in a communal life that stressed simplicity and spiritual values. Their homes, as well as the furniture and other useful objects they created, embody these values. Shaker arts and crafts have become recognized as an important type of American folk art.

Folk Art Today

Folk art changed in the 1900's, along with the rest of American culture. Traditional communities like the Amish continued to produce their arts and crafts. But many other familiar types of folk art were altered by new technology and by the industrialization of American society. For example, after photography was introduced in the mid-1800's the demand for folk portraits fell sharply.

By the early 1900's, factories were mass-producing many of the everyday objects that had once been made by hand. Household textiles were produced on commercial looms. Weathervanes were stamped and cast by machine. And furniture was made with power tools. Mail-order catalogs and improved transportation made these manufactured items available even in remote rural areas. Meanwhile, ideas about art were being spread widely by newspapers and magazines. These ideas influenced even untrained artists.

In communities around the country, folk art became less of a local profession and source of income. Instead, it became more a means of individual expression by self-taught artists and craftspeople. Today folk artists continue to paint landscapes and religious scenes, carve wooden figures, and create personal environments. They create art mainly for their own enjoyment or for that of family and friends. Many use popular images from television and magazines in their work. So their art does not look like folk art of the past. They are still folk artists, however. They still make their own kind of art for their own communities.

Contemporary American folk art also has a more varied ethnic background. As new immigrant groups arrive from around the world, they bring their own folk art traditions with them. These traditions may remain distinct within their communities and neighborhoods. Or they may blend with other art forms to make new traditions. Today, American folk art comes from Cambodia, Haiti, Cameroon, and a hundred other places. It is still all around us, and surely always will be.

Ralph Sessions
Chief Curator, Museum of American Folk Art

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