Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Limners: Early American Portrait Painters

Unidentified artist, seventeenth century, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, about 1671 and 1674,
oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 36 3/4 in. (108 x 93.3 cm),
Worcester Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert W. Rice, 1963.134.
More about this painting can be found at the Worcester Art Museum

The Limners: Early American Portrait Painters  

Limner painting took place in early 17th century America.  A limner painter had little or no formal training; sometimes they are called naïve painters or folk painters. The word limner or limning comes from the old English word for drawing or making images with lines. The old English word comes from the Latin word, illuminaire, to make bright or to light up.
During the middle ages before printing the word limning meant manuscript illumination. These early manuscript illuminators used bright colors without shadowing which caused their work to take on a flat appearance. The Limner’s painted in much the same way, as they were untrained, their work tended to be very flat, with very little shading which caused the figures to take on that flat look. The figures they painted did not appear to have life in them.
In Early America much of the painting that was being done was sign painting. Signs were hung out of storefronts and other businesses. As many Americans could not read signs were painted not with words but with images.  As American colonists began to prosper they looked for things that could brighten up their lives so purchased things that could bring happiness into their homes, and they began to hang portraits of themselves and their family. Guess who painted these portraits; yes it was those sign painters.
Many of these sign painters became the first painters of early America, now known as the Limners. These portraits took on the same qualities as their signs, portraits were simple, flat and tended to be posed in awkward positions that no human could attain. The portraits looked as though the artist had drawn lines and then filled them in with color. As these paintings took on an unsophisticated look, many times they are referred to as primitive works. The clothes painted in these portraits went from one extreme to the other, one would be simply dressed and another elaborately clothed with lace, ribbons, and fancy fabrics. The faces tended to be expressionless with a lifeless stare, the children did not look like children but like miniature adults. Each limner painters had their own style of painting but most often the eyes of the sitter were heavily accentuated and very often included things like books, birds, pets, household objects. The artist often used crushed burnt walnuts, ground chicken bones, boiled eggshells, blueberries and even local clays to create their works with. 
Limner artists were not revered like cabinetmakers or silversmiths, what they produced was not necessary but an item that was considered frivolous. As a result these artists travelled and moved from one location to another to earn a living, and as they weren’t considered important many of them are unknown and many of the works they did went unsigned.

If you are interested in reading about the Limners and early American art here is a selection of books from the Art Division.

 Volume 1

American folk art and decorative arts from the early years of the Republic are telling indicators of family traditions, aesthetic values, and household customs of the young nation. Showing us how creative and consumer cultures from the old world were transformed in the new, Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence presents more than two hundred examples of American folk art and decorative arts created in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Drawn from the extraordinary Jane Katcher Collection, the book features familiar expressions of American folk art—portraits and carvings, quilts and needlework, weathervanes and whirligigs, family records and calligraphy, ceramics, furniture, baskets, and toys—as well as the unexpected—valentines, friendship albums, and keepsakes woven from the hair of loved ones.

Volume 2

The two books below do not have book jackets so the title page was scanned





Although from a different time period than Limner painting, this book has excellent reproductions of early American folk art


Below is a children's book on Limner painting



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