Posts Tagged ‘Portraiture’

This post comes to us from Chelsea Dickson, Curatorial Intern.

George Washington, ca. 1800-05. Attributed to Foeiqua (Chinese). Reverse painting on glass, 28 ¼” x 20 ¼”. New Britain Museum of American Art. Gift of Caroline N. Dealy, Frank P. Dealy, Darilyn H. Dealy and Wensley A. Dealy in honor of Caroline H.P. Dealy.

In honor of the anniversary of our nation’s independence, we would like to draw your attention to a particularly fascinating work from the permanent collection, currently on display in the Flora Humphrey Bentley Gallery.  In the corner, you will find a familiar portrait of our first president, George Washington.  While at first glance it looks like an image printed in virtually every U.S. History textbook, it is when looking closer that things get interesting.

This portrait is a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s (1755-1828) unfinished Atheneum portrait of Washington, so-called because it was purchased by the Boston Atheneum to support Stuart’s poverty stricken family after his death.  The original Atheneum portrait was commissioned by Mary Washington but Stuart liked the way he had captured Washington’s likeness so much that he kept it as a model, never delivering it to Mrs. Washington.



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Gentleman with Negro Attendant, ca. 1785-88. Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Oil on Canvas. New Britain Museum of American Art. Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.06.

Upon a quick glance, the newest addition to the Colonial Gallery at the New BritainMuseum of American Art has left some visitors panic-stricken – an understandable  reaction considering the fact that the painting has two large holes cut out of it. But do not worry, the NBMAA has not been vandalized, in fact, the holes are meant to be there. The work, Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman, was recently commissioned by the Museum from New Haven artist Titus Kaphar as part of an new project of pairing contemporary art with older works from the permanent collection. The purpose of this project, Appropriation and Inspiration, is to highlight the ways in which historical awareness has shaped the practice of many contemporary artists.  Appropriation and Inspiration is not yet a full-fledged exhibition, but rather a budding initiative that will develop into a museum-wide installation in the near future.


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Portraiture has long played an important role in American art. From early Colonial times to the present, portraiture evolved from a purely documentary art form into a means of addressing complex social and cultural issues. By taking a visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art, one can trace the evolution of this popular art form by viewing the many examples of portraiture the museum has to offer.

Lydia Lynde, ca. 1762-64. John Singleton Copley (1739-1815). Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 30 x 25 ¼ in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Stephen B. Lawrence Fund and through exchange, 1976.4.

Among the most formidable examples of portraiture in the Museum’s collection is the painting Lydia Lynde by John Singleton Copley. While early Colonial portraiture was painted by artists with rudimentary training, the next generation of artists (including Copley) was exposed to European artistic theories and methods. From an early age in his home in Boston, the artist experimented with engraving, drawing, while also learning a great deal from the British painters John Smibert (1688-1751) and Joseph Blackburn (1700-1765). Copley’s travels to Europe further on in his career provided him with a degree of technical expertise unparalleled by many of his contemporaries.

When Lydia Lynde commissioned her portrait from Copley in 1762, the artist had secured his position as New England’s preeminent portraitist. (more…)

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Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, 1824, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

George Washington, 1824. Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860). Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Gift of Dr. Timothy McLaughlin.

Rembrandt Peale is known for his portraits of George Washington, one of which the New Britain Museum of American Art is delighted to have as a new acquisition this Presidents month. Rembrandt Peale is supposedly the last artist for whom Washington sat shortly preceding his death. Born in 1778 in Pennsylvania to the famous painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Rembrandt began drawing at age eight. His father tutored him in art and the natural sciences, and he produced his first self-portrait at age thirteen. Peale’s most talented area and source of financial mainstay was painting portraits that were solid, accurate, and straightforward. By 1795, he painted a portrait of George Washington that honestly spoke to the hero’s humanity. Peale greatly admired and was inspired by the work of Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), who is known for his Vaughan and Athenaeum portraits of the first President. (more…)

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Miss Cara Burch (1878-1961), 1888. John Singer Sargent (b. Italy, 1856–1925). Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 ¼ in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Charles F. Smith Fund, 1942.02.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents. He showed a precocious gift for painting and drawing that his mother encouraged, arranging for him to study with some of the finest teachers on the Continent. Although Sargent continued to live abroad, he befriended a number of American artists and exerted his presence in the States through exhibitions and intermittent visits. By 1893 he was among the most acclaimed society portraitists in England and America, yet he also found time to dedicate himself to landscape subjects and mural commissions. An inveterate traveler, Sargent never set down his brush as he journeyed throughout Europe, the Near East, and North America. He worked as an official war artist for the British during World War I, documenting events at the front line in France. (more…)

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Benjamin Colman, 1739. John Smibert (1688–1751). Oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.01.

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. (more…)

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The Reverend Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, 1820. John Trumbull, (1756-1843). Oil on Canvas, 29 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.08.

Regardless of time or place, fashion has been an unmistakable facet of portraiture. What someone is wearing in their depiction can tell the viewer the period in which it was painted, the economic standing of the sitter, their relative age, and much much more. While the faces of the subjects are important for identification, their clothing gives further insight to their lives. In John Trumbull’s portrait of Reverend Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright (1820) we can assess what kind of man he is without ever knowing his title. He is clothed in traditional clergyman robes—an austere black and white. The overall lack of color in his wardrobe signifies a devotion to his religious practices while the singularly bright book indicates his passion for the scriptures.


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