Sunday, August 12, 2012

Wandering Thugs of Art

There are a lot of great period quotes that give us a good idea of how nineteenth-century writers regarded the works of folk artists. Most, if not all, of the quotes are disparaging to the point of hilarity. This particular example is noteworthy for its source, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the physician and writer who wrote prose and poetry alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the other Fireside Poets, and published many of his works in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he helped to found. His son and namesake, of course, became a famous Supreme Court Justice in the early twentieth century and wrote such iconic majority decisions as his "clear and present danger" opinion in 1919's Schenck v. United States.

But it is the opinions of the elder Holmes that concern us today, and it appears that he felt the works of folk portraitists were a clear and present danger to American society. Here is what he had to say about these traveling artists in The Atlantic Monthly in July of 1861:

"[these are the] wandering Thugs of Art whose murderous doings with the brush used frequently to involve whole families; who passed from one country tavern to another, eating and painting their way - feeding a week upon the landlord, another week upon the landlady, and two or three days apiece upon the children, as the walls of those hospitable edifices too frequently testify even to the present day."

This was so good we had to use it in our catalogue for the William Matthew Prior exhibition. But as someone who has spent a good part of his life studying and exhibiting this artwork, I can only be grateful that this is one majority opinion that has been dramatically overturned in our time.


  1. But ignorance and predjudice regarding what artists do for a living still exist. Some people still consider what artists do less than proper work for adults, "fun" (I get that all the time in response to saying I illustrate children's books). Writing is more greatly valued than Illustrating.

  2. I agree. People do not appreciate the hard work or sophistication of the results.

  3. I recently inherited a number of portraits from my Grandmother who was from the Southern Tier of WNY. An art conservator affiliated with Winterthur Museum in DE told me he thinks one of my paintings was done by William Prior. How would I go about authenticating?
    I appreciate any help or direction you could give me.

  4. Mr D
    Upon viewing the video of you giving a WM Prior tour, I may possibly have 3 portraits by Prior done in 2 different styles! Exciting!If you are willing to give your opinion on my family portraits could I email the you pictures?

    I will be anxiously awaiting your response!

    Barbara Rechenberg

    1. Hi Barbara! Please send me photos at i look forward to seeing them. Thanks!


  5. I sent them via email thank you SOOO Much!


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