American folk art paintings came out of the relative lack of exposure artists in the New World had to traditional European art influences. As the work of their predecessors faded with time and distance, self-taught American painters developed their own techniques, largely ignoring tried-and-true painting principles such as perspective, depth, and realism favored in the Old World.
The folk art paintings that were produced in the Colonies and United States are generally divided into four genres; portraits, landscapes, historical or religious paintings, and still lifes. Early itinerant portrait painters traveled the country, creating commissioned portraits for wealthy individuals. Many of these were made with oil paint on canvas, though some portraits were also painted onto wood, paper, or glass. Although most folk art was not created for commercial purposes, untrained artists like John Brewster Jr., Jacob Maentel, Sheldon Peck, John Bradley, and William Matthew Prior were able to support themselves primarily through portrait painting.
Other portrait artists like MaryAn Smith, Rufus Hathaway, Joshua Johnson, Ruth and Samuel Shute, and Erastus Salisbury Field distinguished themselves with their unique stylistic shortcuts, designed to imitate the patterns, textures, or shapes of clothing and other elements worn by or surrounding their subjects. By the middle of the 19th century, however, the growing availability of photography eliminated the demand for these imprecisely painted portraits.
Though landscapes and seascapes had been part of the folk painting vernacular since the late 1600s, they became most popular just as portraits were falling out of fashion. The earliest folk art landscapes generally presented a romantic, awe-inspiring view of nature, while later works documented specific times and places. Unsophisticated renditions by artists including Grandma Moses, Mattie Lou O’Kelley, Paul Seifert, Edward Hicks, Charles C. Hofman, and Fritz Vogt captured rural or city life as well as the wild outdoors. While most were executed in oil, the use of watercolors spread along with the expansion of female educational academies during the late 19th century, which used art as a method to "refine" young women.
Historical and religious folk art paintings generally depicted clearly recognizable scenes from America’s past or the Bible. Some painters included memorial depictions of family members, presidents, or wartime heroes—George Washington was a popular subject. A highly decorative form of historical painting, the “Fraktur” style, presented spiritual themes, allegories, or family records alongside decorative motifs like hearts and doves, as well as verses in German script.
Still lifes, which showcased imagery of flowers, fruit, and animals, were a popular theme for paintings by amateur artists during the 19th century. These works were typically created using watercolors or oil paints on paper or cloth, sometimes with the assistance of stencil designs called “theorems.” Some still lifes involved a shimmering tinsel effect, created by reverse painting onto glass and then backing the work with crinkled foil, while others included scripted calligraphy and quotations.