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, Myself: Portrait - Landscape, 1890. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Dornac (Paul Marsan), Le peintre Henri Rousseau dans son atelier, 1907. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
An artist who grew up in the era of the French Impressionists 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 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 André Derain—and his work was collected by Pablo Picasso, who later bequeathed several of Rousseau’s paintings to the Louvre.
One of the most influential artists of the modern era, Vincent van Gogh was almost entirely self-taught. A complicated, taciturn character, van Gogh did not have an appetite for the classroom. He was taught from a young age by his mother and his family’s governess, after his attempts at education outside of the home met with failure. First was an abortive stint at a boarding school, then an unhappy two years in intermediary school before he entered the workforce as an art dealer’s assistant at the age of 16.
When van Gogh eventually soured on that, he attempted to enter seminary to become a pastor, but failed his entrance exam. He then undertook (and also failed) a semester at a missionary school, though he still landed a job as a missionary in 1879. When his brother, Theo, eyed some of his sketches of his impoverished peasant congregation, he implored Vincent to pursue art, resulting in an extremely short attempt at Brussels’s Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1880.
For the rest of his tragically short life, van Gogh focused almost solely on painting, looking to examples of Japanese woodblock printmaking and the formal innovations of his colleagues, among other influences. But he ultimately developed an intensely personal style that fueled a large body of work. While van Gogh fans are quick to point to his emotional turmoil as the analog to his idiosyncratic style, his swirling, energetic brushstrokes and bold, expressive tones are also the hallmarks of a fiercely independent style forged through self-education.
Frida Kahlo’s father, a German photographer, recognized his daughter’s artistic promise when she was a young girl, teaching her photography and recruiting his friend, a printmaker, to give her informal instruction in the graphic arts. When she exceeded the local artist’s expectations, he went so far as to give her a paid position as his engraving apprentice. The young Kahlo, however, had her sights set on medical school. Tragically, both her apprenticeship and her education were cut short when she fell victim to a near-fatal automobile accident at the age of 18.
During her time convalescing, the pragmatic Kahlo considered a career as a medical illustrator that would turn her artistic hobby into something more. She had an easel custom made with a mirror so she could watch herself paint despite her limited mobility, which led to self-portraits and the observation of her own anatomy. Fittingly, as she developed her style, Kahlo found herself drawn not to methods of illustration, but of personal expression. She began to fuse modern formal devices with Mexican folk traditions and the sort of vernacular Catholic imagery produced by untrained artists.
Kahlo’s interest—both personal and intellectual—in questions of Mexican identity led her to wear local garments and to fashion herself as a Mexican-German mestiza in ways that are reflected in the numerous self-portraits she produced during her life. Her techniques, however, and the folk arts she cherished, were also intimately linked to her understanding of what constituted avant-garde art—namely, a resistance and alternative to academic art training that could be found in local art practices.
Bill Traylor in Montgomery, 1946. Photo by Horace Perry. Courtesy of the Collection of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Writing about the self-taught artist Bill Traylor in 2013, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith painted a somewhat grim picture: “Bill Traylor’s talent surfaced suddenly in 1939 when he was 85 and had 10 years to live.” Born into slavery on an Alabama plantation in 1854, Traylor didn’t receive a formal education in anything, let alone an embrace from an art world he was never expected to inhabit. Even after being emancipated at the end of the Civil War, he was forced to remain a sharecropper in the Jim Crow South. He only moved to another farm in 1935 because, as he put it, “My white folks had died, and my children had scattered.”
Forced into retirement by rheumatoid arthritis, Traylor wound up homeless and sleeping in the back room of a funeral parlor by the 1930s. Lacking the means to support himself, he began creating small drawings and paintings with whatever materials he was able to scrounge. When a young artist named Charles Shannon came upon Traylor’s work by chance in 1939, he supplied him with fresh materials, appreciation, and encouragement—fuel for Traylor, who became incredibly prolific, filling image after image with simplified figures of people, places, and other symbols connected to his personal experiences. The body of work he would create in a limited time with extremely limited means is celebrated for its innovative, untutored aesthetic, as well as the artistic window it created into the strictures of black life in the South during the Reconstruction era.
Discovered at the age of 78, Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses made art throughout her life, though she received no formal education. A small-town housekeeper-turned-homemaker, she was, according to her New York Times obituary from 1961, “a self-taught ‘primitive,’ who in childhood began painting what she called ‘lambscapes’ by squeezing out grape juice or lemon juice to get colors.” In her young adulthood, she copied scenes from images produced by the American printmaking firm Currier and Ives. As her family developed, Moses’s art grew more domestic, or at least what one might call decorative: a painted scene on her family’s fireboard; embroidered images made from yarn; large quilts; dolls for her granddaughters.
In fact, had Moses not developed arthritis in her later years, she may not have switched from her sewing needles back to the easier paintbrush of her youth. Nevertheless, she became extremely prolific, and is said to have produced over 1,500 works representing the simplicities of a bygone era in direct, bright, and realistic imagery. Her rise to fame occurred when an art collector found a handful of her works in a drugstore window, playing the unassuming backdrop for baked goods and jams that she also made for sale.
The following year, in 1939, three of those paintings were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Contemporary Unknown American Painters” exhibition, and just one year after that, Moses had her own successful solo show. By the time of her death in 1961, she had become the self-taught grandmother of American folk art and was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees, including (ironically enough) one from a college of art and design.
From 1930 until his death in 1973, Chicago hospital custodian Henry Darger spent the majority of his leisure time in his apartment, laboriously and lovingly writing and illustrating what would become his magnum opus. Comprising 15,145 pages and hundreds of illustrations, In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of the Vivian Girls: child princesses of a Christian nation who help engineer a revolt against a system of slavery imposed by an evil empire.
Working with a blend of watercolor and collage made from popular magazines and coloring books, he obsessively portrayed the deeds of his heroines, whose actions are interposed with tragic suffering and torture at the hands of their exploiters. In his fantastic narrative, the Vivian Girls recall the gruesome stories of early Catholic saints, but are rendered like comic book characters or young girls from advertising images.
Darger did not receive formal art training; his style was influenced visually by popular culture, and thematically by his troubled upbringing. Sent to a Catholic orphanage at age 8 and institutionalized at age 13 in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, Darger self-identified as both an artist and a “protector of children.” When he passed away at age 81, both designations were carved onto his tombstone. Against the odds, Darger produced a modern epic and is celebrated for his innate talent, his often-transgressive subject matter, and his dogged determination to pursue his vision.
While Yoko Ono’s musical father ensured that his daughter received classical training at the piano, she didn’t receive any tutelage in the visual arts. After graduating high school, Ono applied to study philosophy at Gakushuin, a prestigious private university in Tokyo. After two years, she left the school to join her family, who had moved to New York. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1950s to pursue her considerable talent in musical composition, which afforded her the opportunity to enter the city and rub elbows with artists at a time when poets, visual artists, musicians, choreographers, and other performers were feverishly collaborating on multimedia, cross-disciplinary works of art.
Enrolling in John Cage’s experimental composition course at the New School for Social Research, Ono discovered that her musical background was more than enough to recommend her to the avant-garde community there, which included composer-poet La Monte Young, Conceptual artist George Brecht, and performance artist Allan Kaprow.
It was an environment in which Ono thrived. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) her lack of a formal art education, Ono’s work nimbly synthesizes a wide array of visual components and theoretical ideas, most notably in her performances. And while her art and music career certainly received a signal boost from marrying one of the world’s most famous musicians in 1969, Ono never required his assistance any more than she required formal training in an art academy to become a groundbreaking and world-renowned self-taught artist.
Thornton Dial was born in 1928, the heir to a family of impoverished black sharecroppers in Alabama. He didn’t attend a proper school until he was 13 years old, and even then, he was embarrassed to be placed at the second-grade level. Large for his age and conditioned to hard physical labor, Dial began skipping school to work and make money. In his adult life, he worked in a factory making railroad cars until it closed in 1981, at which point he began making art as a hobby.
This early experience in manual labor formed a basis for Dial’s self-education in materials and techniques, which he deployed in semi-figurative, semi-abstract work that would later evolve into large, often-monumental assemblages, which can be considered of a piece with the Southern bricolage tradition. “My art is the evidence of my freedom,” Dial said in an interview in the mid-1990s. “When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere.”
Dial was a keen diagnostician of the systematic ills he saw in American society. Themes of racism, sexism, and poverty surface regularly in his work through materials that evoke harsh living conditions, and titles that reference political events, historic places, and Christian scripture. He is remembered for his formal ingenuity and the emotional power of his vivid, sometimes-towering forms, which sucked everyday objects from his life into their orbit, and turned them into something extraordinary.
Millenary Frosted Gold and Opal Dial