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in art, the style of works of self-trained artists who develop their talents in a fanciful and fresh manner, as in the paintings of Henri RousseauRousseau, Henri
, 1844–1910, French primitive painter, b. Laval. He was entirely self-taught, and his work remained consistently naive and imaginative. Rousseau was called Le Douanier
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 and Grandma MosesMoses, Grandma
(Anna Mary Robertson Moses), 1860–1961, American painter, b. Washington co., N.Y., self-taught. She lived the arduous life of a farm wife, first in the Shenandoah Valley and later at Eagle Bridge, near Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
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. The term primitive has also been used to describe the style of early American naive painters such as Edward HicksHicks, Edward,
1780–1849, American painter and preacher, b. Bucks co., Pa. A member of the Society of Friends, he became a noted back-country preacher in the conservative group of Quakers associated with his cousin Elias Hicks.
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 and has been applied to the art of the various Italian and Netherlandish schools produced prior to c.1450. More recently the term has included modern artists who research the past as well as cultures foreign to their own, such as Robert SmithsonSmithson, Robert,
1938–73, American sculptor, b. Passaic, N.J. After first making modular, serial sculpture, Smithson began to design large-scale earthworks (see land art) in the 1960s.
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 and Joseph BeuysBeuys, Joseph
, 1921–86, German artist, b. Krefeld; one of the most influential of postmodern artists. Drafted into the Luftwaffe during World War II, he was wounded several times and in 1943 was shot down over Crimea.
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See W. Rubin, ed., Primitivism in 20th-Century Art (1988).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a tendency in late-19th-century and early-20th-century art toward the simplification of pictorial means and the use of elements from primitive art, that is, from prehistoric, medieval, folk, non-European ancient, and children’s art.

The spread of primitivism as a creative principle was conditioned by the elemental, anarchistic hostility of a number of artists to the existing bourgeois culture, which was marked by acute contradictions and a dominating spirit of positivism. The artists sought refuge from reality in a primitive, “unmuddied” life. Primitivism was based on the aesthetic integration of artistic cultures that had previously been considered “low,” “crude,” and “barbaric.” Through such cultures the artists sought wholeness, emotional clarity, and a “spontaneous” way of looking at the world. This was in contrast to analytical realism, naturalism, and impressionism. Such quests for simplicity and expressiveness were the bases of experiments by members of the leading artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The artists frequently abandoned all the traditions of European artistic culture that had been established since the 16th century.

Since primitivism was not a single movement, it manifested itself in different ways in the work of numerous masters. It characterizes the work of P. Gauguin and the nabis, the fauvists, the cubists, the Paris school, and the dadaists in France. The expressionist works of Die Brücke in Germany are also marked by primitivist elements. In Russia, works by members of the Blue Rose (after its decline and the overcoming of symbolistic tendencies by its masters), the Jack of Diamonds, and the Donkey’s Tail (whose theorist of primitivism was A. V. Shevchenko) reflect the influence of primitive art.

The term “primitivism” is frequently used interchangeably with naive art, that is, art produced by masters without professional training, but who nonetheless have been in the mainstream of artistic life. Works by such artists as H. Rousseau in France, N. Pirosmanashvili in Georgia, F. Muche in Germany, R. Viva in Italy, I. Generalić in Croatia, and H. Pippin and A. M. Robertson (Grandma Moses) in the United States reflect an inherently unique childlike interpretation of nature. They are marked by a combination, at times comic, of simplified forms and minute details.


Goldwater, R. J. Primitivism in Modern Painting. New York-London. 1938.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.