FROM COLONIAL TIMES, and particularly during the first half of the 19th-Century, there has been a rich tradition of folk art in America. Painting was one of its most popular manifestations, and portraits were enthusiastically commissioned by the developing middle class. Doctors, lawyers and ministers, merchants and sea captains, the landed gentry--all were eager to have their likenesses made to provide proof of their status.
Consider, for example, the Ammi Phillips paired portraits of Dr. Isaac Everest and his wife, Sarah Cornwall (sold at Christie's in 1988). In it the doctor is shown holding an open book, a sign of literacy at the time and usually represented in portraits of doctors and lawyers. For a sea captain, a view of his ship was appropriate. In depictions of women and children, a family pet, a toy or a piece of jewelry might be included.
In those early days, portrait painters were in demand, and for the most part they were self-taught. These itinerant artists (or limners, as they came to be called) were a common sight in small New England towns, as well as in the Southern states and later in the Midwest. Artists were skilled at using oils, pastels and watercolor. The works were simple: Often, details were omitted, overall shape emphasized and perspective non-existent.
These charming portraits are admired today not only as art but also as vivid social history. The limners were kept busy until the development of the daguerreotype in 1840 made their work largely obsolete. After that date, many of them turned to photography.
Folk portraiture is a field full of pleasant surprises for the collector. Though the works of the painters whose identities are known are expensive (portraits by Ammi Phillips and John Brewster regularly bring five figures), the works of anonymous artists are still available and are, of course, far less costly.
Today Latin, Afro-American and Native American folk art portraiture of the 1980s shares with the wandering limners of 19th-Century America a similar startling directness and simplicity, the same vibrant color and charm.
Folk painting is available at Vivian Farren, Richard Mulligan (to the trade), Margaret Cavigga, Millstein's General Store, and Antique Mart of Los Angeles in Los Angeles; Main Street USA in Venice; Richard Yeakel Antiques in Laguna Beach; Uncle Tom's Antiques in Orange; Green Dolphin Street in Pasadena, and The Snow Goose and Norma Dee in La Jolla.