What is Primitivism?

Primitivism is a “term used with reference to art that celebrates certain values or forms regarded as primal, ancestral, fertile and regenerative,” according to Rodger Cardinal (Oxford University Press, 2009). At one time the term was representative of Africa, Asia, Pre-Colombian America, and the Pacific Islands. Though between 1905-1935 western artists began flocking to this subject matter and the term found its spectrum widening; this interest in “ethnic arts” by westerners was in a large part due to the formal studies in anthropology and by art historians. It seemed to be the closest that some artists would get to such raw material as supposedly represented within its own unbiased, cultural context. Though, it seems the artists were drawn to the inspiration for primarily formal reasons.

Eclaireurs Attaques par un Tigre, Henri RousseauOne such artist is Henri Rousseau, a post-impressionist painter widely recognized for his work in Primitivism. He was born in the Loire Valley of France and worked as a tax collector; he was a self-taught artist. He never left France but many scenes of his works took place in the jungle. Other artists that explored Primitivism included Matisse, Picasso, and Gauguin. Though, Gauguin did travel to Tahiti but took up with a French colony there. Picasso, of Spanish heritage, was fascinated by African art and believed in the power of talismans. He and Matisse received strong artistic inspiration from Persian art and the use of pattern to create depth.

Some compare the onset of the Primitivism movement with the same zeal that the Pastoral movement overtook artists and authors before Impressionism, when the idealism of a Golden Age ruled. The common thread that runs through both movements is the idea of untouched nature, of untouched innocence, and of a place unsullied by civilization. So many describe Primitvism as less of an art movement and more of a found sensibility or “cultural attitude.”

About the Author

Tiffany Chaney is a freelance writer, artist and graphic designer residing in North Carolina. In 2012, her first poetry collection Between Blue and Grey was released. Find out more about her at