Portraiture and Painting of America

Portraiture was by far the most popular form of fine art in the colonies. In the seventeenth century, portraits were somewhat crude compared to their later counterparts. Limners, or portrait painters, were occasionally trained in England or the Netherlands but often learned by copying prints of European paintings. Since the colonial upper class was relatively small, limners often had to supplement their income by painting signs for businesses or even by painting houses. House painters would also try their hand at painting portraits. Often, limners would travel from town to town with prepainted bodies and simply fill in the head of anybody who was willing to pay to have his or her portrait made. By the turn of the eighteenth century, wealth and taste had reached a critical mass at least in prosperous towns that could support a class of professional artists, most of whom were from Europe. Henrietta Dering Johnston, an Englishwoman working in Charles Town, South Carolina, was very popular among that city’s planter elite for her skill in rendering small pastel portraits. Jeremiah The¼ s, a Swiss artist, was active in Charles Town in the middle of the eighteenth century. Since Virginia, a fairly wealthy colony in its own regard, had no prosperous port city in which to sell completed paintings, painters would be commissioned by individual planters for specific projects. In 1735, for instance, William Byrd II commissioned Charles Bridges to paint portraits of his daughters. Other European painters were active in Annapolis, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Gustavus Hesselius, a Swedish painter, achieved some renown for his paintings of Lenni Lenape leaders and scenes from the Bible and Greek mythology. Robert Feke also rose to prominence from rather shadowy roots in the middle of the eighteenth century. Unlike most other professional painters, he was born in America, on Long Island. He spent his early life at sea some have speculated that he was abroad learning to paint and produced some striking portraits of the Boston and Philadelphia upper classes. His career ended as mysteriously as it began, and one 1767 document simply described him as mariner, deceased. John Smibert, an English immigrant, based his work on English court portraits and owned a small copied collection of the works of Titian, Raphael, and other European masters. The collection caused quite a stir in the fledgling Boston art world, and several young painters, including Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, and John Trumbull, spent time in Smibert’s small gallery copying paintings and learning to draw. This second generation of American painters went a long way toward proving that American artists could hold their own against their European counterparts and even be recognized for their skills in Europe. Foremost in this regard was Benjamin West, who was born in Philadelphia in 1738. West eventually emigrated to Rome and London, where he became president of the Royal Academy in the 1760s. He was particularly adept at depicting momentous occasions in American history that echoed classical forms. William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772) and The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec (1771) are two examples of his large-scale historical paintings. West encouraged the careers of such painters as Gilbert Stuart and the aforementioned Trumbull and Peale. During the Revolution, West remained in England, whereas Stuart, Peale, and Trumbull returned to the United States. All three gained fame through painting the heroes of the Revolution in classical poses. In this way, fine art played a large role in the creation of America’s national myths and symbology. Peale’s Washington After Trenton is a prime example, as are Trumbull’s The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Washington Resigning His Commission, and The Declaration of Independence, large versions of which decorate the Rotunda of the Capitol. Simple portrait painting did not decline as more-refined forms took center stage, though. Even as the War for Independence raged, itinerant portrait painters traveled New England, painting in long-established, orderly patterns, even though their palettes had become slightly bolder. Three main trends are visible in colonial painting. First, the impact of Europe, particularly England, was immense. Colonial painters began by copying European prints and forms of portraiture, moved to emulating English painters living in the colonies, and finally graduated to hold high positions in the Royal Academy in London. Second, the earliest seeds of a distinctly American style of painting are evident when one considers the practical, down-toearth nature of American portraiture (see Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere, for instance). American painters exhibited a fondness for painting the events of contemporary American history, and this choice, combined with the way they executed their historical paintings, laid the groundwork for a more independent American way of painting. Finally, American painters modified what they copied from England, often transforming the end product into something slightly more spare and rejecting the overt sensuality often associated with European high art of the same period. Judith Carducci alla-prima pastel still-life painting holidaymapq

WHIDBEY ISLAND FAS: October 2011 holidaymapq

Portrait Society of America, Inc. – Portrait Society, Portrait … holidaymapq

Leave a Reply

85 − 84 =