Today, we are taking you on a tour of portrait paintings in the Colonial and Early Republican Art Gallery situated on the first floor of the NBMAA.
In 1607, religious and political unrest brought the first English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia. Europeans would continue to seek religious freedom and economic opportunity in the New World, as exemplified by the Puritans who arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. North America demanded a new way of life.
Unaccustomed to the land and its resources, the settlers had to learn to cultivate crops and survive in the wilderness. Only later, as cities grew, did commerce develop. The demands of everyday life delayed the introduction of art into American culture for generations. Thus, the earliest painting in the Museum’s collection dates to 1739.
Portraiture, which was highly regarded at the English court, appeared in America around 1665. Known as limners, the painters of early American portraits—who had little, if any, training—worked in a flat, linear style. As more settlers arrived, including trained artists, portraits became increasingly lifelike. Throughout the eighteenth century, the growing demand for portraiture gave rise to a group of well-known and successful portraitists, including John Smibert (1688–1751), Jospeh Badger (1708–1765), John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Ralph Earl (1751–1801), and Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827).
The first work, Benjamin Colman, is by John Smibert. Smibert was born in Edinburgh and studied in London with Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) as well as in Italy. He established himself as a portraitist in London before traveling to Boston in 1728, having accepted a professorship at a college to be founded in Bermuda. When the project failed to materialize, he remained in Boston, becoming one of the foremost painters in the colonies, influencing John Singleton Copley and others of the next generation.
Smibert was responsible in part for bringing this type of merchant portrait to America. The letter in Benjamin Colman’s (1710–1765) hand, inscribed To / Mr Benjn Colman / Mercht / in / Bost[on], was a common device for identifying the sitter. A graduate of Harvard University, Colman became a prominent merchant in Boston and the father of eleven children but died having declared bankruptcy. In this portrait, however, the formal pose, direct gaze, and rich colors convey his short-lived prosperity.
Next is Lydia Lynde by John Singleton Copley, who is regarded as the foremost American painter of the eighteenth century. Copley was born in Boston and influenced by his stepfather, Peter Pehlam (1697-1751), an engraver and portrait painter. Copley began his career as a painter at the age of 15. Boston was ripe for new artistic talent—painter Robert Feke (1707-1751) had departed in 1752—only Joseph Badger remained on the scene. Copley set out to capture the likenesses of mercantile aristocracy of pro-revolutionary Boston as an artist, not as a craftsman. His self-educative tasks included copying Old Master paintings, completing a book of anatomical drawings in 1756 and studying the work of English portraitist Joseph Blackburn (active 1752/1777). Copley became known for his mastery of color, realistic expressions, and his ability to draw with a brush. In fact, critics exclaimed he could “think in paint.” Not surprisingly, Copley became the first American to fully support himself by painting. Lydia Lynde, completed in 1764, illustrated Copley’s stylistic move away from Badger’s stiff, barren images to more sophisticated and opulent renderings. The figures are less flat, colors have strong value contrast, and shadows and lighting reveal an improved technical grasp.
Sir Richard Arkwright was created by Mather Brown (1761-1831). Brown was born and raised in Boston and left America for England, where he was warmly received by Benjamin West (1738-1820), an artist who had prospered in London as both a history and portrait painter. A descendant of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the colonial minister, Brown became adept at capturing the character of his sitters while still flattering them. Despite his grand appearance, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) in fact began his career as a humble wig maker. Arkwright later controlled the patent on spinning machinery which revolutionized the textile industry in both England and in America. As signified by his ample girth, he was a larger-than-life character— and at his death was the wealthiest man in England.
Finally, Mrs. Charles Ridgely Carroll (Rebecca Pue) was painted by Sarah Miriam Peale, one of the first American women to succeed as a professional painter (1800–1885) . Peale was from an extended family of artists active in Baltimore and Philadelphia. She learned her craft as a studio assistant for her father, James Peale (1749-1831), the miniaturist and brother of Charles Willson Peale. This painting of Rebecca Pue (1801–1851), the daughter of a Maryland physician, may have been commissioned in 1822 on the occasion of her marriage to Charles Ridgely Carroll, with whom she raised eleven children. The Carrolls were among the most influential Maryland families at the time.
Do you prefer one over the other artists? Why or why not? Do you like these periods in American art history or do you prefer a different period? Have you seen any of the above portraits in person? How do these portraits compare with contemporary portraiture? Which style says more bout the sitter? Why?