San Francisco

“101 Masterpieces of Primitive Painting”

M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

Some of the best examples of early American primitives selected from the vast collection of Col. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch of New York and Maryland. The point they make is that in discussions of art we have tended to overlook the fact that the fledgling United States developed a style of painting of its own, prac­ticed by artist-craftsmen of rustic humor and uncompromising candor who owed little to customs and niceties of European art. Their naive style did have roots in English provincial paint­ing, brought to the colonies. by limners, topographers and “face painters,” but they quickly developed new and original modes of expression as hard work erased memories and modified inherited tendencies. Portraits, rich in historic costume and often painted with devas­tating realism, dominate this show, and through them it is easier for us to view these paintings as true art expression rather than as antiques and historical documents––as one is apt to do with the landscape and genre paintings. Some are by parlor painters, but most are by those itinerant painters who became the elite of their time despite the fact that most of them considered themselves to be merely artisans who stressed the ability to “take satisfactory likenesses.” Among these latter are representative works by Joseph Badger, Winthrop Chandler, John Durand, Reuben Moulthrop, Pieter Vanderlyn and William Matthew Prior. These men were active in the 18th century, and some (like Prior) had a sliding scale of prices. “Flat” portraits cost less than “shaded portraits.” There was a reduced price on profiles. Women apparently had more time to “sit” than men and were less self conscious, although the Garbisch collection shows some fastidi­ously rendered portraits of professional men. While the sophisticated artist of the big cities painted Crown officials and political bigwigs, the untrained provincial painter portrayed gentlemen of comparable standing in the smaller community, such as Winthrop Chand­ler’s penetrating study of his brother, Captain Samuel Chandler. There is little indication among contemporary docu­ments that paintings were considered any more precious to the owner than other household furnishings, yet Joseph Badger’s portrait of Mrs. Isaac Foster, sober-faced, intelligent, sitting bolt-up­right in her chair, must have afforded her great pleasure. He took not only a “satisfactory likeness,” but made a character analysis as well. Which brings us to another point: the American primitive not only knew the power of direct impact and how to attain it, but was a canny observer as well.

E. M. Polley