Fine Artists: Earl Cunningham American Folk Artist 1893-1977

Earl Cunningham "Seminole Everglades" american folk paintingEarl Cunningham is recognized as one of the premier American folk artists of all time. Despite this honor, Cunningham can also be seen as a modernist painter. His art expresses an overall sense of goodness, optimism and a utopian harmony. The depictions of the world in Cunningham’s paintings were the world as he wanted to see it and not an actual portrayal of his lifetime. For instance, there are never any cities to be found in his works. Earl Cunningham only painted small towns. Like Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, Cunningham's images offer the old and the ordinary as an antidote to change. Earl Cunningham was a self taught artist and used bold vivid colors mixed with a flat perspective. Cunningham often added incongruous details, "such as flamingos in Maine and Viking ships in Florida," to his work. Cunningham painted the American landscape of the Atlantic coast and its intracoastal ecosystem with dock workers, fishermen, farmers, wildlife and even American Indian tribes. As Earl Cunningham traveled up and down the coast he painted his reflections of the surroundings.

His own experiences informed his works, which celebrate the beauty of nature and often depict dramatic storms or sunsets. Painted in the American folk art style, the canvases of  Earl Cunningham are filled with images of birds, trees, boats and the sea, and are a unique reflection of American history, from Native American life to more modern times. Earl Cunningham was born in Edgecomb, Maine near Boothbay Harbor, and from his birth was attracted to the sea. This love of the ocean defined both his life and his paintings. Earl Cunningham left home at age 13 and supported himself as a tinker. He later became a seaman and traveled the East coast of the United States in large ships carrying goods to eastern ports. Earl Cunningham married Iva Moses, a piano teacher on June 29, 1915. During World War I, he drove a truck for a naval yard and visited Florida for the first time. For the next 10 years, the couple spent winters in Tampa Bay, Cedar Key, and St. Augustine, Florida.

Earl Cunningham painting “Sunrise at Pine Point Maine” In 1937, troubled by marital problems, Earl Cunningham left Maine and bought land in South Carolina, where he farmed and raised chickens. During World War II, Earl Cunningham became a chicken farmer in Georgia raising chickens for the U.S. Army and many of his paintings were painted during that time. Cunningham settled in St. Augustine in 1949, where he opened a curio shop called the Over Fork Gallery. Earl Cunningham displayed his paintings there, although this artwork was not for sale. Earl Cunningham continued to paint in relative obscurity. In his spare time, he painted genre scenes, primarily landscapes of the places he saw during his lifetime: Maine, New York, Nova Scotia, Michigan, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

A loner from an early age and self-taught as an artist, Earl Cunningham combines fact, fantasy and his own life experiences in paintings filled with vibrancy and confidence of life itself. His work reflects his own unique vision of the world and Cunningham's naļve style speaks of joy and happiness. His glorious, vivid colors have given him the reputation of being an American Primitive Fauve.

Earl Cunningham painting "Blue Sail Fleet Returns"Although Cunningham identifies many locations in the titles of his paintings and includes details that are specific to the place, such as the small figures of golfers in the foreground of the painting “Hilton Head,” the artist takes liberties with the actual appearance of a place. The perspective in Earl Cunningham’s paintings is often distorted with multiple points of view. For example, “Gathering Clouds Off Little River Inlet” and “Safe Harbor–Perkins Cove” combine a bird’s-eye view of the landscape with side views of boats, trees and houses. In “Sunrise at Pine Point Maine,” (shown above) Cunningham uses viewpoint and spatial configuration to balance broad areas of color with minutely rendered, quasi-descriptive detail. Curtains in the windows of a building, an American flag, a lighthouse, reflections in the water and a winding path are design elements as well as emblematic notations. In 1961 Earl Cunningham sent a painting titled "The Everglades" to Jacqueline Kennedy. The painting is currently on display at John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston

It appears, at first glance, that Earl Cunningham was a naive painter. “The painter was simple like a fox.” His idyllic scenes revolve around a simpler time. If an observer did not know the dates in which the paintings were completed, placing the works in the 1800s would not be an inaccurate assumption. Although this would be incorrect, that was the reason for Cunningham’s approach. These scenes are in contrast to the modern innovations of the 1950s that were happening all around him. Cunningham also is known for his daring use of brilliant color. In “Blue Sail Fleet Returns” (shown here), Earl combines bold shades of lavender, mauve, blue, rust, and olive and forest greens. Such paintings as “Seminole Village, Deep in the Everglades” and “The Twenty-One” feature intensely colored skies at sunset. The Everglades represented a place of serenity to Cunningham, who was aware of the impact of modern life on Florida's environment and considered himself a conservationist.

Like the places he painted, Cunningham often depicted both general representations of birds and specific species in his paintings. "Seminole Everglades," (very top) painting with its dark shadows that evoke the murkiness of the swamps, is populated by a wide variety of birds including flamingos, wood ducks, owls and cranes. A unique point of view is paired with these strange colors. There are also inaccurate proportions in many of the paintings He wanted to create the illusion that size, or proportion, is in the eye of the beholder. The more important an object, the larger it should appear. This is how things seem in the minds of those who are innocent and naive to the ways of the world. Although this concept does not take away from the ability to enjoy the subject matter of the paintings, it does represent a response to American life as it was on the fast track towards a modern transformation.
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Earl Cunningham
American Folk painter “Seminole Village, Deep in the Everglades” “The Twenty-One”