Description: Attributed to Joseph Blackburn
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(British/American, 1730-after 1777, active New England ca. 1755-1764)
"Portrait of a Lady in Russet Silk"
oil on canvas
28-1/4" x 23-1/4", framed 34" x 28-3/4"
Provenance: Estate of Dr. George Porter III, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Notes: When scholars first began to seriously study Early American portraiture within the larger framework of American art history, one of the main debates was how closely it was connected to and influenced by English portraitists; could it be considered a distinct style, or was it merely a location-based variation? Confusing the issue was the indisputable fact that many of these early American artists had lived, studied, or worked in England. In fact, it was not unusual for an artist to travel back and forth between the two countries and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to definitively track their travels.
One such artist was Joseph Blackburn. Little is known of Blackburn's education or artistic experience, though it is likely that he apprenticed in the studio of a London portraitist. Much of his earliest work, spanning from his beginnings in England, and including his years in Bermuda and New England, reveal the influence of mezzotints of the 18th-century English masters of portraiture; figures are within a half or full oval surround, and there is a decided emphasis on the fabrics and accoutrements of wealth and prestige, often at the expense of true likeness.
The two portraits offered here reveal several key characteristics of Blackburn's approach to portraiture: thin compressed lips with distinctive deep dimples at the corners, full cheeks and fleshy, rounded chins, strong linear bridge of nose, and what has been referred to as his "rococo palette" of clear blues, pinks and reds. They are less opulently dressed than some of his full-length or multi-figural portraits, but are strikingly similar to his "Portrait of a Woman", ca. 1762, now conserved at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, or "Portrait of Anne Saltonstall", at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas.
References: Miles, Ellen G., ed.
The Portrait in Eighteenth-Century America. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993; Dresser, Louisa, "The Background of Colonial American Portraits: Some Pages from a European Notebook".
Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, April 1966, Vol. 76, Issue 1, pp. 19-58; Barratt, Carrie Rebora. "Faces of a New Nation",
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003, Vol. LXI, No. 1, pp. 5-55.