Skip to main content

1600-1754: The Arts: Overview

1600-1754: The Arts: Overview


The Limits of Taste in Seventeenth-Century British America. The homeland of the first English colonists boasted a culture of high artistic achievement. William Shakespeare was still writing plays as the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, struggled to survive. English painters produced vibrant, lifelike works on canvas, and the music of English composers enlivened the banquets and balls of the gentry, nobility, and court. Yet for a variety of reasons the first American colonists seldom enjoyed the artistic achievements of seventeenth-century England. The fine arts required significant money, time, and talent to sustain them, and most of the early colonists energies and resources were committed to establishing livable settlements. Most of these settlers came from the middle ranks of society, which found the luxuries of fine arts beyond their means, and thus rarely cultivated artistic taste. Puritan colonists consciously rejected fine arts such as the theater and some forms of painting and sculpture. They thought such pursuits wasteful of time and money at best and immoral at worst. Puritans considered sacred art to be idolatry and the use of instrumental music in worship to be one of the popish rituals of Roman Catholicism. Puritan meetinghouses were austere and unadorned. Their worship was simple, making Scripture central in unaccompanied psalm singing and preaching. Yet Puritan New England was a highly literate culture, and an emphasis on the written word gave rise to accomplished poets such as Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. In New England and elsewhere in seventeenth-century America, the demands of survival and colony building restricted most artistic expression to useful objects produced by artisans. A cabinetmaker might adorn a clock or chest with fancy carvings; a carpenter might decorate the facade of a house with carved trim; a stonecutter might cut a skull or other designs on a tombstone; and a seamstress might embroider a floral design on a handkerchief.

The Artistic Heritage of the Continent. Settlers from the great colonial powers of continental Europe brought with them the heritage of their homelands. The Protestant Netherlands boasted some of the highest artistic achievements of the seventeenth century, particularly in painting. Dutch colonists brought some of these paintings with them to adorn their New World homes, and several Dutch painters came to the colonies to paint landscapes and portraits. Over time, however, Dutch colonial art declined. The ceremonial requirements of Roman Catholicism stimulated artistic achievement in New France and the Spanish Borderlands. Though the earliest church interiors in the Spanish Southwest date from the end of the eighteenth century, it is known that colonial sculptors and painters adorned them with sacred statues and paintings far earlier. Catholic missionaries perpetuated Old World traditions of sacred music. Ceremony and festival accompanied important life passages such as weddings and funerals. In Spanish colonies a rich tradition of folk song and festival sprang up to take a place alongside religious ceremonies or to replace them in the absence of priests. French settlers perpetuated old folk traditions in New France. French and Spanish colonial officials likewise sought to reproduce the grandeur of courtly entertainment they had known in Europe, staging concerts and plays and adorning public buildings with imported sculptures and paintings.

The Rise of Genteel Sensibilities in British America. Near the end of the seventeenth century a prosperous colonial gentry who had satisfied what Benjamin Franklin termed the first cares and necessaries of life began surrounding themselves with the embellishments of decor, entertainments, and leisure pursuits enjoyed by the English gentry. Contemporaries termed these fineries genteel or polite to signify a level of polish, refinement, elegance, or intellectual attainment appropriate to English and colonial elites. Stately Georgian mansions began to appear along the streets of bustling port cities or on the banks of busy waterways. Their owners began adorning their walls with handsome tapestries and family portraits, covering the floors with rich Turkish rugs, lining shelves with fashionable English books, displaying fancy tea sets or an occasional sculpture on elegant cherry-wood tables, and filling the halls with polite English music. While skilled colonial artisans often produced furniture for these homes, much of the artwork, and most of the fancy tableware, books, and music were imported from England. Colonial musicians learned to play popular European dance numbers. Wealthy patrons placed organs in Anglican and Lutheran churches so that European sacred music could enhance worship. In some cities the gentry were also able to encourage public entertainments such as the theater. In the field of portraiture Gustavus Hesselius of Philadelphia and John Smibert of Boston set new standards and led the way for the emergence of the first great native-born painters, Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, and John Singleton Copley in the late 1750s and early 1760s. They achieved international fame, however, by imitating the very best in European cultural achievements of the period.

Literature. The first Anglo-American printing press was set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640 to provide Puritan colonists with copies of religious books and to print books for Harvard College, and by 1720 there were presses in ten other colonial cities. The first full-length book printed in Cambridge was The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640), also called The Bay Psalm Book. Most colonial readers also wanted to buy almanacs, cheap chapbooks of poems or stories, and reprints of popular English literature. Colonial printers did their best to meet these demands, sometimes risking trouble from religious leaders to do so. Yet they lacked the resources to print many longer books, which were usually imported from England. John Bunyans Pilgrims Progress became a best-seller in America within a few years of its first publication in England in 1678, and Samuel Green of Boston printed the first American edition in 1681. The novels of English writers such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson found an avid eighteenth-century American readership. Eighteenth-century American gentlemens clubs such as the Junto, established by Benjamin Franklin in 1727, provided the literate gentry with opportunities to read and discuss the latest European works of literature, philosophy, political theory, and science. These clubs also provided budding American writers a readership for manuscripts of their own works. Many were never printed. Authors and their friends produced multiple copies by hand and circulated them among gentlemens clubs throughout the colonies. One distinctly American form of popular literature did emerge in the colonial period: captivity narratives, harrowing tales of wartime capture by Native Americans. These narratives usually shared a standard theme: how God enabled the captive to survive the ordeal, escape or be ransomed, and return home.

Sacred Music. Americans rarely think of their colonial forebears as having been musically inclined, but much surviving evidence indicates that music making was a popular colonial pastime. Singing versifications of the Psalms was a common form of worship throughout colonial America. Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Dutch and German Reformed churches all discouraged composition of sacred lyrics to prevent errors in doctrine, often prohibited instrumental accompaniment of sacred singing to guard against empty ritualism, and frowned on the singing of parts or harmonizing to keep good singers from becoming vain. In the early eighteenth century, however, controversy broke out in Boston as ministers such as Benjamin Colman and Cotton Mather encouraged musical education to improve the singing in their congregations. The Great Awakening of the 1740s and after brought with it a new wave of popular hymn singing throughout the colonies, as the compositions of Isaac Watts and John and Charles Wesley antagonized an older generation of strict psalm singers.

Secular Music. Ordinary colonists brought a rich repertoire of popular folk music and dance from Europe and eventually adapted it to American situations. They enjoyed this music and dance in taverns and at popular gatherings such as weddings, feasts, and other celebrations. African Americans often became accomplished players of European music and musical instruments, providing accompaniment at such gatherings. Over time they introduced selected African forms into Anglo-American music and dance as well as incorporating European forms into their own musical traditions. Cultured European music also made its way into eighteenth-century port cities, often introduced by immigrant musicians such as professional organists, hired to play the new organs that were beginning to appear in churches. These musicians could rarely support themselves by performance alone, living mainly on income from teaching music and dance and selling printed music and musical instruments. The first known public concert in America was given in Boston in 1729 by an ensemble of a few professional musicians and a larger number of amateurs. Until the 1750s such performances were usually confined to port cities and colonial capitals, and most were available by private subscription only.

Theater. American theater performances were prohibited by religious and secular authorities in some colonies, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. Productions were staged in Williamsburg as early as 1716, in Charleston and New York by the 1730s, and in Philadelphia by the late 1740s, but the market was too small for many acting companies to become self-supporting. Eighteenth-century gentlemens clubs provided the most common venue for amateur musical concerts and theater, and they often supplied most of the performers as well.

Colonial Portraiture. Wealthy colonial gentry commissioned portraits of family members to signify their importance in society and impose a sense of duty on generations to come. Public figures commissioned portraits to commemorate accomplishments such as the assumption of governorships or the winning of military campaigns. Successful portrait painters such as Smibert might sustain a brisk business by completing a new commission every two weeks, but even the best found it necessary to supplement their incomes bv selling imported artistic prints and supplies. Many other portrait painters made their livings on the road, traveling from town to town in search of families who wanted to preserve their likenesses for future generations. These itinerant portrait makers created hundreds of family portraits that survive to the present, providing historians with rich insights into eighteenth-century American tastes, values, dress, family life, and patterns of consumption.


Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992);

Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds., Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994);

Diana Fane, ed., Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America (New York: Abrams, 1996).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"1600-1754: The Arts: Overview." American Eras. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"1600-1754: The Arts: Overview." American Eras. . (January 17, 2019).

"1600-1754: The Arts: Overview." American Eras. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.