1600-1754: Art: Portrait Painting
Art: Portrait Painting
Dutch Artistic Traditions. The Dutch brought to the New World the tastes of the sophisticated art world of the Netherlands. Their homes were decorated with oil paintings and prints, including landscapes, still lifes, and religious subjects. Artists were active in New Netherland before painters are known to have begun creating portraits in New England, but only three seventeenth-century Dutch colonial works have survived: portraits of Gov. Peter Stuyvesant, Nicholas William Stuyvesant, and Jacobus Strycker, probably painted around 1661-1666. They are attributed to Huguenot Henri Couturier, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1660. These paintings are more sophisticated than those produced in New York and New Jersey over the next century, as families of Dutch descent bought portraits painted by several generations of “limners” (that is, delineators,
or artists who depicted their subjects by drawing). Usually earning their livings at other trades such as decorative painting of houses or making and decorating glass (glaziers), these artists were sometimes self-taught, and some were known to travel from place to place in search of commissions.
The Duyckincks. One of the earliest limners was Evert Duyckinck (1621-circa 1703). None of his paintings has survived, but coats of arms enameled on the windows of the Dutch Reformed Church at Albany in 1656 are known to be his work. Some ten portraits are attributed to his youngest son, Gerrit Duyckinck (1660-circa 1712), and Gerrit’s son Gerardus Duyckinck (1695-circa 1746) painted The Birth of the Virgin (1713), the earliest dated and signed New York painting, and many other portraits and biblical works. Evert Duyckinck III (1677-circa 1725), son of nonartist Evert Duyckinck II, painted portraits in a style similar to that of his cousin Gerardus, whose eldest son, also named Gerardus, took over the family’s art-supply business and may also have been an artist.
As in England, the most popular art form in the British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the print. The “pictures” listed in many seventeenth-century household inventories were usually small engravings, most often portraits of prominent people. The first known portrait print made in the British colonies—and the only one surviving from the seventeenth century—is a portrait of the Reverend Richard Mather, a woodcut made by Boston printer-engraver John Foster in 1670.
In the eighteenth century most prints were still imported from England, but Americans began making their own portrait prints for use in books and almanacs. Thomas Emmes’s 1728 copperplate engraving of Reverend Increase Mather became a model for other frontispiece engravings of clergymen. Boston printer James Franklin studied printmaking in London and is believed to have done most or all of the illustrations for the books and almanacs he published, including the frontispiece portrait of the author in Hugh Peter’s A Dying Father’s Last Legacy to an Only Child (1717). Thomas Johnson’s 1755 line engraving of A Perspective Plan of the Battle fought near Lake George on the 8th of September 1755 may be the first historical print published in the British colonies.
By 1710 colonial artists were making mezzotints, engraving images on copper or steel in a manner that allowed them to create images that appeared more three-dimensional than in simpler forms of engraving. The earliest may be John Simon’s portraits of four Iroquois chieftains, published in 1710. William Burgis, who was active in Boston in 1716-1731, produced topographical mezzotints such as A Northeast View of the Great Town of Boston (circa 1723), The Boston Lighthouse (1729), and View ofFort George (1729-1731).
The best-known colonial mezzotint artist was Peter Pelham, who had been a printmaker in London before he set up shop in Boston in 1727. His best-known mezzotint is his portrait of Reverend Cotton Mather (1728), for which Pelham copied his own oil painting of the famous Puritan. After John Smibert arrived in Boston in 1729, Pelham based many of his mezzotints on Smibert’s portraits of notable New Englanders. Pelham’s 1747 portraits of Sir William Pepperrell and Gov. William Shirley, both based on paintings by Smibert, are considered Pelham’s finest works. Pelham passed on his knowledge of printmaking to his stepson John Singleton Copley, who eventually surpassed both Pelham and Smibert as an artist.
Source: Jacob Ernest Cooke, ed., Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, volume 3 (New York: Scribners, 1993).
Later Dutch Artists. Dutch painters continued to arrive in New York and New Jersey during the early years of the eighteenth century. Pietr Vanderlyn painted portraits of leading Kingston and Albany families around
1730-1745. John Heaten, who married a Dutch woman and painted in the Dutch style, was active as a portrait painter in the upper Hudson Valley during the same time. He is also known for his landscapes and genre paintings. Yet by the eighteenth century even colonists of Dutch extraction, particularly those prosperous enough to buy artworks, had come to favor English styles of painting—as the tastes of the English aristocracy gradually prevailed over the traditions settlers of various nationalities brought with them from the Old World.
Puritanism and Practicality. The nonaristocratic origins of the colonists and the practical demands of everyday life in the new American colonies guaranteed that I the idea of “art for art’s sake” was slow in developing in the New World. In New England the Puritans’ belief that religious images in particular and ornamentation in general smacked of popery and heresy reinforced the general emphasis on utility over artistry in early colonial history. Yet throughout the British colonies settlers tended to share a distrust of art that had been fostered in the mother country by several generations of religious reformers. Like their fellow Englishmen, however, even the Puritans approved of portrait painting, not as an art form but as a practical means of preserving the likeness of an esteemed political or religious leader or a beloved family member, and ironically mid-seventeenth-century New England, blessed with prosperity and political stability, was the first British colony to foster the arts of portraiture and decorative painting.
Seventeenth-Century New England. As in New Netherland, the first New England portrait painters often made their livings as house painters or glaziers. Others were primarily sign painters. There are also records of early, anonymous portrait painters who traveled from town to town. Little is known about the work of the earliest portraitists. One of the most talented was Augustine Clement, a glassmaker from Reading who arrived in Boston in 1635. Unsigned portraits of Reverend Richard Mather, Dr. John Clark, and Gov. John Endicott are attributed to Clement. The portrait of Clark and an unsigned portrait of Elizabeth Eggington are both inscribed 1664, making them the first New England portraits that can be dated with certainty. Though these portraits share some traditional stylistic similarities, they were clearly painted by different artists. Seven unsigned portraits of parents and their children, all painted between 1670 and 1674, have sometimes been attributed to Clement’s son Samuel. Mr. John Freake, Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, The Mason Children, Alice Mason, and three individual portraits of children in the Gibbs family share a richness of color and a sympathetic attention to facial details. These portraits are painted in an Elizabethan style that had gone out of fashion in London but was still practiced in provincial England. Rather than creating the illusion of three dimensions through the use of perspective shading, the artist emphasized color, decorative pattern, and symbolic details (a bird as a symbol of the soul, for example). Another anonymous artist active in Boston during the 1670s painted portraits of John Wensley and Elizabeth Paddy Wensley that display more spatial sense than the Freake, Mason, and Gibbs portraits, but the figures are still rather flat, and the artist also concentrated his efforts on color and symbolism.
Thomas Smith. In England artistic tastes had shifted to the realistic Dutch Baroque style brought to England by Sir Anthony Van Dyck in the 1620s and 1630s. The first British colonial artist to paint in this style was Capt. Thomas Smith, who seems to have learned something about painting in England or Holland and arrived in New England around 1650. Between 1670 and 1691 he painted several portraits of political and military leaders, including a self-portrait. The background includes a naval battle in which Smith was probably involved, and the foreground includes objects that express his Puritan religious convictions. More a gifted amateur than a professional artist, Smith attempted to use the latest painterly techniques to give his portraits a sense of space and three-dimensionality, but while he seems to have captured true likenesses of his subjects, his paintings remain rather flat and wooden in comparison to portraits by contemporaries in England.
The Eighteenth Century. By the 1680s in England Sir Godfrey Kneller had become official court painter in England, establishing the Anglo-Dutch style formulated by Van Dyck and others as the one preferred by the English aristocracy and all others with aspirations to become people of taste. In the early eighteenth century the prosperity of the colonies began to draw trained artists to growing port cities. Henrietta Johnston, a painter of miniatures, arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1705 and remained active there until her death around 1728-1729. She was followed by Swiss artist Jeremiah Theüs, who established a practice that lasted until 1774. German painter Justus Engelhardt Kühn was active in Annapolis from 1708 until his death in 1717. Scots painter John Watson (1684-1762) settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 1714. British portrait engraver Peter Pelham began work in Boston in 1727. Though these artists’ portraits came close to the style then current in England, they were generally beneath British standards. Charles Bridges, who arrived in Virginia in 1735 and spent the next several years traveling from plantation to plantation to paint portraits of the Virginia aristocracy, came close to capturing the sophisticated elegance of Kneller’s aristocratic court portraits, but Bridge did not stay in the colonies long enough to have much influence on other artists.
Hesselius. Two men were largely responsible for the course of American painting for the rest of the eighteenth
century: Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755) and John Smibert (1688-1751). Born in Sweden and having had part of his artistic training in England, Hesselius lived in Philadelphia during the 1710s, spent the 1720s in Annapolis, and returned in 1734 to Philadelphia, where he lived and worked until his death. Also a painter of signs and other decorative work, as well as a builder of spinet pianos and pipe organs, Hesselius painted straightforward, unassuming, thoroughly realistic portraits. With his portraits of the Delawares Tishcohan and Lopowinsa, painted in 1735, Hesselius became the first artist of European origin to depict Native Americans objectively and sensitively. His Last Supper, painted around 1721-1722 for Saint Barnabas’s Church in Queen Anne’s Parish, Maryland, was the first painting commissioned for a public building in America. This religious painting and his later Holy Family are now lost. During the 1720s Hesselius also painted Bacchus and Ariadne and Bacchanale, two depictions of classical nudity that suggest the relative sophistication of Philadelphia in comparison to Boston. Hesselius taught painting to his son John, who briefly taught Charles Willson Peale, one of the great American artists who came into their own in the late 1750s and early 1760s.
Smibert. When he arrived in Boston in 1729 Smibert was already an established painter of portraits in the style of Kneller. One of the works he completed after his arrival was The Bermuda Group (1729-1731), depicting the future bishop Dean George Berkeley, members of his family, and others, including Smibert, who participated in Berkeley’s abortive plan to establish a college in Bermuda. In its unified organization and clear demarcation of the relative importance of the various individuals, the painting became a model for later American group portraits. Smibert’s best work seems to have been behind him by 1730. His New World paintings have been called unspectacular, honest, and unflattering, but he pleased the citizens of Boston with portraits far more sophisticated and competent than those of his Boston contemporaries such as Nathaniel Emmons (1704-1740) and Joseph Badger (1708-1765).
Smibert’s Legacy. Smibert also passed on the English court style to younger artists. Robert Feke, born in Oyster Bay, Long Island, around 1707, may have studied with Smibert and was certainly influenced by him. Feke’s Family of Isaac Royall, painted in Boston in 1741, is similar to The Bermuda Group in composition and in the poses of two subjects. Active in Newport, Rhode Island, during the 1740s, Feke, who died in Barbados around 1752, is considered by some art historians to be a more imaginative painter than Smibert. Feke passed on the Smibert legacy to lesser painters of the 1740s and 1750s, including Badger, John Wollston, and John Greenwood, none of whom had the talent to rival Feke. Though the two men may never have met, Feke also influenced John Singleton Copley, whose earliest works are variously modeled on portraits by Feke and Smibert, and Greenwood. By 1754 American portrait painting was on the verge of a great leap forward with the emergence of Benjamin West, as well as Copley and Peale.
Jacob Ernest Cooke, ed., Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, volume 3 (New York: Scribners, 1993);
Wayne Craven, Colonial American Portraiture (Cambridge, London & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986);
John Wilmerding, American Art (Harmondsworth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1976);
Louis B. Wright, George B. Tatum, John W. McCoubrey, and Robert C. Smith, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period (New York: Scribners, 1966).