Art History Lab

Exploring the Beauty and Legacy of Primitivism in Art

Origins and Influences of

Primitivism in Art

The word “primitivism” refers to a trend in Western art that romanticized the art of non-Western people and their cultures. The period of time when primitivism flourished was from the early 20th century to the 1950s, during which time many European and American artists drew inspiration from the beauty of “primitive” art.

This circle of artists was motivated mainly by the desire to break away from established traditions and seeking new sources of inspiration.

Origins of Primitivism Art

The term “primitivism” comes from the Latin “primus,” which translates to “first.” This indicates that primitive art is considered the basic or earliest form of artistic expression. The Western Europe’s fascination with tribal cultures and non-European cultures began in the late 19th century.

They viewed non-Western cultures as exotic and fascinating, with a unique way of life and untamed nature. The fascination was fueled by the European superiority complex, which made them view non-European cultures as primitive and a less-developed form of civilization.

Emergence of the Noble Savage

The noble savage refers to a concept of a person or peoples who have not been corrupted by civilization and live in harmony with nature. It was a term coined in the 18th century by Enlightenment philosophers who believed that civilization had corrupted human nature and that the nobility of the savage did not need to be taught or learned.

The European artists who were primitivists in the early 20th century were also fascinated by the idea of the noble savage. They saw in “primitive” art a pure expression of the human spirit, uncorrupted by civilization.

Primitivism in Art

Primitivism in art emerged in the early 20th century, and its first proponents were European painters such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse. They deliberately sought inspiration from what they considered primitive cultures, mainly from Africa and Polynesia.

They believed that primitive art’s visual language was more vibrant, direct and unpretentious and that the art form was free from the constraints of traditional Western canons.

Exploration of Primitive Artworks

Primitivist artists were drawn to primitive artworks’ simplicity and refined forms, which lacked the detail and realism of traditional Western painting. They were captivated by the artworks’ abstract figures and how they used exaggerated shapes to represent reality.

Some of the most well-known primitivists include Paul Gauguin, who lived and painted with the natives of Tahiti, and Pablo Picasso, who was inspired by African masks. Henri Matisse was also influenced by African masks and representations of African sculptures.

Ideals and Legacy of Primitivism

Primitivism’s ideal was to create a spiritual and emotional template for art that broke from the impersonal, scientific, and industrialized modern world and returned to a simpler form of existence. Some artists believed that western art had lost its way and needed to be re-evaluated as a universal art, which was accessible to all humanity rather than just an elite few.

This movement created the opportunity for African American painters to make headway and gain visibility during the Harlem Renaissance. In the contemporary art, primitivism is still having an impact on artists from different cultures, and it continues to bridge divides and influences art movements worldwide.


Primitivism in art, during the early 20th century, was driven by the need to break from established traditions and search for newer sources of inspiration. It was also an example of how artists from different cultural backgrounds found common language and cultural insights in the art of the primitive cultures.

Primitivism’s ideal was to create a spiritual and emotional template that broke from the impersonal, scientific, and industrialized modern world and returned to a simple form of existence. Its legacy continues to have an influence on contemporary art movements worldwide.

Primitivism Styles and Concepts

Primitivism in art is a broad term used to describe the movement where artists drew inspiration from the art of non-Western cultures, characterized by abstract and simplified forms. This movement encompassed various styles and concepts that originated from different artists’ perspectives and cultural backgrounds.

This section of the article will delve deeper into some of these styles and concepts of primitivism.

Orientalism and Primitivism

Orientalism was a term used to describe Western art’s fascination with the art, culture, and aesthetics of Eastern civilizations. During the 19th century, this fascination with the East was translated into art, literature, and even fashion.

Western artists were interested in the exoticism and mystique of Oriental cultures, turning to the Middle East, India, and Japan for inspiration. However, their approach was not always respectful and taken at face value.

Western artists sometimes appropriated the Eastern aesthetic to embellish European traditions. This exemplified the Eurocentric views of superiority and served the European intervention in many Eastern countries.

This led to the view of the East as a primitive civilization in contrast to the sophistication of the West.

Nave Art and Child Art

The Nave Art movement emerged in the early 20th century as a response to the conventions of European art. It is categorized by an unconventional approach to artistic standards.

The artists, mostly self-taught or untrained, sought to elevate amateur and child-like art to an artistic style. They also drew inspiration from “primitive” cultures’ art, aiming to produce an art form that was more direct, spontaneous, and unpretentious.

Child art is another aspect of primitivism that draws inspiration from the concept of Nave Art. In this artistic expression, children’s art forms undergo critical appreciation, not as mere supports of childhood learning but as authentic artistic expressions in themselves.


Neoprimitivism emerged in the late 20th century as a response to the formalism and abstraction dominant in contemporary art at the time. This movement was influenced by the Art Brut movement, which sought to remove artists from the academic context and promote the artistic expression of outsiders.

Art Brut is a term coined by Jean Dubuffet and refers to the raw, unrefined artistic expression that is free from the conventions of mainstream art.

Neoprimitivism artists draw inspiration from “outsider” or untrained artists, folk art, and other indigenous forms of art to create unconventional works that challenge the dominant art discourse.

Famous Primitive Paintings

Numerous painters who fall under the umbrella of primitivism created masterpieces that have become iconic. Here are some famous primitivist paintings:

Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gauguin

Created by Paul Gauguin in 1888, Vision After the Sermon is a unique painting that depicts a visionary scenario of Breton villagers. It is an abstract interpretation of the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

The painting is unique for its stylistic innovation, especially in its abstraction and simplicity. The composition of the painting draws inspiration from the art of Gauguin’s Tahitian period, which is characterized by simplified forms and bright colors.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Created by Pablo Picasso in 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a large oil painting portraying a group of female prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona. The painting’s innovative and unconventional style draws inspiration from African and Iberian sculpture and features abstract shapes and distorted female forms.

The painting was significant in the development of modern art and enabled Picasso to come to his signature style.

Bathers in a Room by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Bathers in a Room is a painting created by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1910. The painting is a unique interpretation of the traditional European subject of the female figure in nature.

It draws inspiration from African and Oceanic sculptures, still-life objects, and pseudo-Primitive objects. The painting synthesizes the flatness and angularity of Asian art with the impressionist style of Western art.

Childbirth by Jean Dubuffet

Childbirth is a painting created by Jean Dubuffet in 1944. It is a classic example of Art Brut style, which aims to promote the artistic expression of outsiders.

Dubuffet directly represented the chaotic and messy physicality of childbirth in a primitive way that aims to capture the innocence and directness of primitive societies’ art.


Primitivism in art was a movement inspired by the art of non-Western cultures that flourished in the early 20th century. It encompassed various styles and concepts derived from artists’ different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

Orientalism and Primitivism were interrelated influences leading to Eurocentric views of superiority. Nave Art sought to elevate child and amateurish art to a sophisticated style, relying on the inspiration of primitive cultures.

Neoprimitivism was a late 20th-century movement that challenged dominant discourses by creating works that challenged the academic binary of insider and outsider art. Finally, the iconic works created by primitivist artists, such as Vision After the Sermon, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Bathers in a Room, and Childbirth, remain timeless and influential in contemporary art.

In conclusion,

Primitivism in Art was a movement in Western art that emerged during the early 20th century, and it referred to artists’ fascination with the aesthetics and cultures of non-Western people. The movement’s ideal was to break from established traditions and search for new sources of inspiration, which led to various styles and concepts such as

Orientalism and Primitivism,

Nave Art and Child Art, and


Many famous primitivist paintings such as Vision After the Sermon, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Bathers in a Room, and Childbirth were created, and they still have a significant impact on contemporary art. In essence, primitivism in art offers a valuable perspective on creativity and reflects the deep connection and appreciation between different cultures.

Popular Posts