Tuesday, February 12, 2019

8 Famous Artists Who Were Self-Taught


8 Famous Artists Who Were Self-Taught

Humans have been making art since the dawn of time, often with little education in materials, techniques, or theory, yet the notion of the “self-taught artist” is a relatively new phenomenon. In order to create art outside of the traditional channels, after all, you first need to create those traditional channels by which we typically mean the established schools and academies that codify art education into defined standards and practices. And in the West, that history largely began in 1635 with the Académie Française, which radically professionalized the art field.

For the next century or at least until 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers ushered in individualism and reason as challenges to tradition and authority - the academy was able to maintain its power and faced little in the way of revolt. But it was only a matter of time before artists in the West questioned these high institutions, and the 19th century provided some of our earliest, most cherished examples of the self-taught artist. This is the era that gave rise to Henri Rousseau and shortly therea after 


Humans have been making art since the dawn of time, often with little education in materials, techniques, or theory, yet the notion of the “self-taught artist” is a relatively new phenomenon. In order to create art outside of the traditional channels, after all, you first need to create those traditional channels - by which we typically mean the established schools and academies that codify art education into defined standards and practices. And in the West, that history largely began in 1635 with the Académie Française, which radically professionalized the art field.

For the next century - or at least until 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers ushered in individualism and reason as challenges to tradition and authority - the academy was able to maintain its power and faced little in the way of revolt. But it was only a matter of time before artists in the West questioned these high institutions, and the 19th century provided some of our earliest, most cherished examples of the self-taught artist. This is the era that gave rise to Henri Rousseau and shortly there thereafter, Vincent van Gogh. The latter received very little formal training, though he had years of experience in the art world; Rousseau may have received none at all. 

Outside of the Western canon, the idea of being self-taught can mean something quite different. Indeed, in some regions of the world, artists who operate outside of any prescribed system are seen as more advanced than professional artists, and the rules and formalities implied by the latter category are seen to stifle creativity altogether. Joanna Williams, professor emerita of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the University of California–Berkeley, has written that the Western concept of a self-taught artist “would sound very odd in China, where the amateur painter, of high social status, (has been) regarded as the model of the ‘genius,’ superior to the mere professional.”

The untrained art-makers that follow, all from the last 150 years, succeeded in making their mark with little or no art school guidance.

Henri Rousseau

An artist who grew up in the era of the French Impressionists and Post- Impressionists, and, Henri Rousseau lacked those artists’ formal training. He only began to paint in earnest in 1884, at age 40. For most of his adult life, he worked as a clerk, earning the nickname “Le Douanier” (“the customs officer”) from critics who sought to discredit the naïve, unschooled painter. Yet it is rumored that the undemanding nature of Rousseau’s job (he never actually made it to the ranking of customs officer) is precisely what gave him the time to teach himself painting; when he wasn’t moving paper, he made trips to the Louvre to sketch from its collection.

Rousseau developed a following, particularly among artists, for what his advocates saw as the directness and lack of pretension in his work, qualities that broke the mold of academic standards. Best known for his vivid, exotic landscapes, Rousseau created dreamlike scenes defined by crystal-clear outlines, and he would come to be loved by the Surrealists Kasper König, co-curator of the 2015 exhibition “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters” at Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, has noted that Rousseau’s genius lay in his ability to avoid the pitfalls of academic composition and naturalistic rendering. “Rousseau wasn’t interested in false illusion,” König stated. “It was about art, not illusion - and that was radical.”

The 20th-century avant-garde recognized Rousseau’s value. By the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside van Gogh and Paul Gauguin; Henri Matisse and Andre'  Derain, and his work was collected by Pablo Picasso. who later bequeathed several of Rousseau’s paintings to the Louvre.

Humans have been making art since the dawn of time, often with little education in materials, techniques, or theory, yet the notion of the “self-taught artist” is a relatively new phenomenon. In order to create art outside of the traditional channels, after all, you first need to create those traditional channels by which we typically mean the established schools and academies that codify art education into defined standards and practices. And in the West, that history largely began in 1635 with the Académie Française, which radically professionalized the art field.

For the next century or at least until 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers ushered in individualism and reason as challenges to tradition and authority—the academy was able to maintain its power and faced little in the way of revolt. But it was only a matter of time before artists in the West questioned these high institutions, and the 19th century provided some of our earliest, most cherished examples of the self-taught artist. This is the era that gave rise to Henri Rousseau and shortly thereafter, Vincent van Gogh. 

The latter received very little formal training, though he had years of experience in the art world; Rousseau may have received none at all.

Outside of the Western canon, the idea of being self-taught can mean something quite different. Indeed, in some regions of the world, artists who operate outside of any prescribed system are seen as more advanced than professional artists, and the rules and formalities implied by the latter category are seen to stifle creativity altogether. Joanna Williams, professor emerita of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the University of California - Berkeley, has written that the Western concept of a self-taught artist “would sound very odd in China, where the amateur painter, of high social status, (has been) regarded as the model of the ‘genius,’ superior to the mere professional.”

The untrained art-makers that follow, all from the last 150 years, succeeded in making their mark with little or no art school guidance. 

Henri Rousseau

An artist who grew up in the era of the French Impressionist and Post - Impressionists, Henri Rousseau lacked those artists’ formal training. He only began to paint in earnest in 1884, at age 40. For most of his adult life, he worked as a clerk, earning the nickname “Le Douanier” (“the customs officer”) from critics who sought to discredit the naïve, unschooled painter. Yet it is rumored that the undemanding nature of Rousseau’s job (he never actually made it to the ranking of customs officer) is precisely what gave him the time to teach himself painting; when he wasn’t moving paper, he made trips to the Louvre to sketch from its collection.

Rousseau developed a following, particularly among artists, for what his advocates saw as the directness and lack of pretension in his work, qualities that broke the mold of academic standards. Best known for his vivid, exotic landscapes, Rousseau created dreamlike scenes defined by crystal-clear outlines, and he would come to be loved by the Surrealists.

Kasper Konig, co-curator of the 2015 exhibition "The Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters” at Museum Folkwain Essen, Germany, has noted that Rousseau’s genius lay in his ability to avoid the pitfalls of academic composition and naturalistic rendering. “Rousseau wasn’t interested in false illusion,” König stated. “It was about art, not illusion - and that was radical.” 

The 20th-century avant-garde recognized Rousseau’s value. By the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. after, Vincent van Gogh, 


The latter received very little formal training, though he had years of experience in the art world; Rousseau may have received none at all.

Outside of the Western canon, the idea of being self-taught can mean something quite different. Indeed, in some regions of the world, artists who operate outside of any prescribed system are seen as more advanced than professional artists, and the rules and formalities implied by the latter category are seen to stifle creativity altogether. Joanna Williams, professor emerita of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the University of California - Berkeley, has written that the Western concept of a self-taught artist “would sound very odd in China, where the amateur painter, of high social status, (has been) regarded as the model of the ‘genius,’ superior to the mere professional.”

The untrained art-makers that follow, all from the last 150 years, succeeded in making their mark with little or no art school guidance.

Henri Rousseau

An artist who grew up in the era of the French Impressionist and Post - Impressionists, Henri Rousseau lacked those artists’ formal training. He only began to paint in earnest in 1884, at age 40. For most of his adult life, he worked as a clerk, earning the nickname “Le Douanier” (“the customs officer”) from critics who sought to discredit the naïve, unschooled painter. Yet it is rumored that the undemanding nature of Rousseau’s job (he never actually made it to the ranking of customs officer) is precisely what gave him the time to teach himself painting; when he wasn’t moving paper, he made trips to the Louvre to sketch from its collection.

Rousseau developed a following, particularly among artists, for what his advocates saw as the directness and lack of pretension in his work, qualities that broke the mold of academic standards. Best known for his vivid, exotic landscapes, Rousseau created dreamlike scenes defined by crystal-clear outlines, and he would come to be loved by the Surrealists.

Kasper Konig, co-curator of the 2015 exhibition “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters” at Museum Folkwain Essen, Germany, has noted that Rousseau’s genius lay in his ability to avoid the pitfalls of academic composition and naturalistic rendering. “Rousseau wasn’t interested in false illusion,” König stated. “It was about art, not illusion --and that was radical.”

The 20th-century avant-garde recognized Rousseau’s value. By the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.  
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