San Francisco

Primitive American Watercolors

de Young Museum

Mrs. Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller and husband entertain Sunday guests. After dinner the guests congratulate her on her fascinating hobby; “This has needed doing!” and, “. . . It must keep you very busy.” But the gentlemen want to talk about oil and money, so the ladies withdraw to examine Mrs. Rockefeller’s magnificent collection of antique Pop art.

What did they see? Young Mr. Scissorlegs and Miss Rockerfoot with duckbilled bonnet meeting for a tryst on a perilously miniature Boston bridge. And there was the sidewheeler “Bunker Hill,” stacks a smoke, rocker beam aslant, seeming to sit monumentally still as the conventionalized water rushes by, the image of stillness magnified by the full complement of passengers standing rigidly at attention; the water thrown back by the keel was indicated by a dotted line. And here is a lady indulging in the once-fashionable hysterical-neurotic symptom of fainting, attended by three gallant gentlemen who realize that it is an act of great gravity but no importance. And there is Mrs. Botsford and her two daughters conjured up beside their tombstones. The daughters are not pictured as children, but smaller and yet smaller ladies. The more important people in a picture are often larger; in a picture of dancing and singing South Carolina Negroes, one man who looks like a black Abe Lincoln, is huge. From wintry Wisconsin came a snowbound farm with split level barn, cows lying down, eating, and watching bovinely, the slanting cellar door, tracks in the snow, fences, and practically all the sheds and outbuildings, its Victorian artist faithfully recording everything except the privy.

All of these unpretentious bumpkin artists were accurately recording the events, practices, prejudices and conceits of their time while the professionals were painting the pomp of Rome and making heroic portraits of politicians. Today’s potential primitives are probably mostly snapping cameras, but surely some eccentric barber is keeping the tradition alive.

Knute Stiles