Colonial American Portrait Painters (17th Century)
About Colonial American Portrait Painters
Colonial American Portrait Painters
A Brief History of Colonial Portraiture in American
The first generation of painters who journeyed to America from abroad in the seventeenth century are today, largely unknown by name. Works by these painters are rare, and may not be completely identified. Immigrants of course, imported a number of paintings, but a surprising number of paintings were actually made in the colonies; mostly in Boston and New York. By profession the painters seem to have been known ... (view more)
Colonial American Portrait Painters
A Brief History of Colonial Portraiture in American
The first generation of painters who journeyed to America from abroad in the seventeenth century are today, largely unknown by name. Works by these painters are rare, and may not be completely identified. Immigrants of course, imported a number of paintings, but a surprising number of paintings were actually made in the colonies; mostly in Boston and New York. By profession the painters seem to have been known as painter-stainers – not limners (who were painters of miniature portraits). They probably engaged in diverse occupations while making the first life-size portraits of colonists in New England and New York.
The earliest dated work (1664) is an unsigned portrait made in Boston of Elizabeth Eggington, which is owned by the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford. This portrait represents a young girl in elaborate clothing, holding a feather fan and wearing a miniature image of a gentleman (probably her father). Unfortunately, this painting has sustained considerable damage or wear over the years. In somewhat better shape is a painting which also bears the date 1664 depicting a bearded physician holding a skull and an instrument known as a trephine (for cutting a hole in the skull of a patient). This painting is also unsigned, but it has been attributed to the hand of the immigrant Augustine Clement who trained in England. In the new world he was a neighbor of the physician depicted in the painting, Dr. John Clarke. The painting of the surgeon, Dr. Clarke, now hangs in The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine; Harvard’s Boston Medical Library.
By 1670 a different hand seems to be at work painting portraits in Boston. This person may have been Augustine Clement’s son, Samuel Clement, Jr. The paintings which cluster around the date 1670 include the following works:
Mr. John Freake, Mrs. John Freake and her baby Mary (Worcester Museum of Art)
Margaret Gibbs, Robert Gibbs (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Henry Gibbs (Sunrise Museum, Inc., Charleston, West Va.)
The Mason Children (M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Cal.).
It is possible that the portraits of Mr. and Mr. Rawson at the Historic New England Genealogical Society, Boston are also by this same artist, but these portraits have so much damage that it is hard to judge this matter.
By the last decade of the seventeenth century an identified painter named Captain Thomas Smith came to Boston. Smith's signed self-portrait currently hangs in the Worcester Museum of Art. His workmanship is also attributed to portraits of Mrs. Patteshall and Child and of Major Thomas Savage (both paintings in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
This list by no means exhausts the portraits and/or the hands at work in Boston in the seventeenth century. There seems to be at least two other unnamed artists at work before the end of the seventeenth century – which probably suggests that there were half a dozen painters making portraits before the year 1700. By that date a new crop of painters seem to have sprung up in the colonies, not having formally trained abroad. This would include a painter connected with the Japanning trade in Boston in 1713, Nehemiah Partridge, who migrated between New York and New England to ply his trade in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The early years of the eighteenth century also includes the unidentified painter who painted the portrait of the one hundred-year old Anne Pollard at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He painted a portrait of Anne Patteshall (private collection), of Thomas Thacher (Old South Historical Collection), Elisha Cook, Sr. (Peabody Museum, Salem), and Mary Gardner Coffin (Nantucket Historical Association). This handful of paintings by this unknown artist demonstrates that there was a self-taught, but gifted observer of character in Boston before the arrival of Smibert. This mysterious artist deserves further research and documentation. His work is instantly recognizable for forthright delineation of elongated faces having strong shadowing and composed within an oval portrait format.
Portrait painting in America after the arrival of John Smibert in 1729 made a quantum leap in artistic style. No longer was a late medieval manner of portraiture acceptable in fashionable circles in the colonies. From Smibert’s influence in Boston there radiated a new approach to imagery that emphasized convincing light and shadow and baroque substance to the sitter’s face and figure. Smibert’s group portrait of Bishop Berkley and his Entourage which includes an image of the painter, (Yale University Art Gallery), and the Smibert portrait of Judge Samuel Sewall (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) are prime examples of the new style imported from England to Newport, Boston and elsewhere. Printmaker Peter Pelham made mezzotint copper plates of some of Smibert’s images of important members of the clergy and of officials such as Gov. William Shirley. Smibert had a son, Nathaniel, who carried on his father’s tradition of portraiture.
In the Philadelphia area there were painters Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755) from Sweden, who emigrated to America in 1711 , and his son, John Hesselius (1728-1778) who worked within the baroque and rococo traditions of portriture. John gave Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827) his first painting lessons at Annapolis in 1762. Within a decade, Peale painted at Mt. Vernon, his first portrait of George Washington, but not before studying in London with Benjamin West between the years 1767 and 1769.
With a few minor exceptions, painters in colonial America made their livelihood by crafting portraits of the well-to-do. By the mid eighteenth century a lighter touch in painterly style is manifest in the work of Robert Feke (active 1741-50) and thereafter printmaker/seller turned painter, John Greenwood, and in the colorful portraits of John Wollaston (flourished 1736-1767) who came to America from London. Wollaston first appears in New York City in 1749 and during the subsequent ten years left about three hundred portraits in the colonies in Philadelphia, Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere before departing for Bermuda and thence to India. In 1767 he returned to Charleston, South Carolina where he painted about twenty portraits before returning in that same year to London.
The emergence of the talented young artist, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) by the mid 1750s, eventually, in the 1760’s eclipsed the works of all other artists in the colonies with his brilliant performance which gained ascendancy in the Colonies until his departure for study in Italy and permanent removal to England on the eve of the American Revolution(1774).
Active in America between 1754 and 1763 was Joseph Blackburn about which little factual information is available. He seems to have been trained in England in the manner of Thomas Hudson and Joseph Highmore before coming to this country and painting in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Boston areas before departing for Bermuda where he left several portraits.
The artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) left the colonies in 1760, long before the American Revolution, even as he was coming into his maturity, first studying in Italy for three years before settling in London. By the time Copley arrived in London, West had the established a reputation as one of England’s foremost history painters. In 1772 he received the appointment of historical painter to King George III. Although often described as an American painter, West was, essentially, a British artist whose influence upon American painters was profound.
Matthew Pratt (1734-1805), who was born in Philadelphia, studied in West’s London Studio for two years, beginning in 1764. Pratt’s conversation piece, The American School, painted in 1765, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts West, Pratt and other artists in West’s painting room in London. This image shows how young the artists were at that time. West was twenty-seven years old; Pratt was thirty-one! All American artists were British subjects, until the War for Independence established a new nation, and a national identity for artists from the United States of America.
John Trumbull (1756-1853) of Connecticut is the artist most firmly identified with the new Nation. He served during the Revolution as an officer in the Continental Army and went to London to study with West. He was imprisoned in retaliation for the hanging of John Andre, but later released. After the War, Trumbull was back in London in West’s studio and began work on a series of paintings about the American Revolution. – the concept of which resulted in the commission for four monumental historical paintings for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. The Trumbull gallery at Yale University maintains a lasting tribute to his legacy, for an annuity to the artist, the Trumbull collection became the nucleus of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) was another painter from the colonies who studied in West’s studio. Stuart arrived in London in 1777, Trumbull in 1780. Ralph Earl, from Connecticut took some instruction from West probably after he arrived in London in 1778, or sometime during the seven years he spent in England. Earl returned to Connecticut in 1785 and for the next fifteen years turned out a large number of portraits in the western part of that State. Many of these depicted sitters within interior surroundings showing details of the settings. He also painted four images at the site of the battles of Lexington and Concord, which served as the source for engravings by Amos Doolittle of New Haven. These were claimed by William Dunlap’s History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), as the “first historical pictures, perhaps, ever attempted in America”.
Jonathan Leo Fairbanks
Katharine Lane Weems Lane Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Emeritus, Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston (hide)