Art: American Portraiture

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Art: American Portraiture


Background. Without aristocratic patronage and with limited public interest in the arts, American artists faced a serious problem in finding financial support. Widespread demand for portraits made portraiture the most viable way for them to earn a living, and many artists turned to this form of art. The business and commercial aspects of artistic endeavor were especially conspicuous in portrait painting. Artists had traditionally regarded history painting as at the top of the artistic hierarchy and portraiture as at the bottom. Despite the financial opportunities it offered, artists aspired to higher forms of art, seeing portrait painting as limiting and demeaning, as the artist was often required to sacrifice art to accommodate the subjects personal vanity.


Joshua Johnson was the first known African American portrait painter in the United States. There is little certain information on his background. He was probably born in the West Indies and seems to have come to America sometime in the 1770s as a slave or indentured servant to the family of Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale. Johnson eventually achieved his freedom and worked in Baltimore from about 1796 to 1825. By his own account Johnson was a selftaught genius in painting. Johnson painted more than eighty portraits, including Sarah Ogden Gustin (circa 17981802), his only signed work. His subjects ranged from members of the wealthiest Baltimore families to middle- and working-class individuals. Johnsons portraits combined sophistication with folk simplicity, reflecting at once the artistic influence of the Peales and his lack of formal training.

Gilbert Stuart. As one of the most successful and prolific American portraitists of the early republic, Gilbert Stuart (17551828), a Rhode Island native, did not share his contemporaries qualms about portrait painting, realizing its commercial potential to its fullest. Best known for his portraits of George Washington, Stuart had established his reputation as a portrait painter in England, where he trained under Benjamin West. Despite his artistic success there, he fell into debt because of his extravagant way of life.

The Washington Portraits. Forced to return to the United States in 1793 to escape his creditors, Stuart undertook the project of portraying George Washington. I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone, he declared. I calculate upon making a plurality of portraits, wholelengths, that will enable me to realize. And if I should be fortunate I will repay my English and Irish creditors. The results more than lived up to these expectations of profit. Stuart painted several different portraits of Washington and turned the sizable demand for replicas into a highly lucrative enterprise. The first version (1795)called the Vaughan type after its owner, Samuel Vaughanwas followed by the most popular and influential of his Washington portraits, the Athenaeum portrait (1796), so called because the Boston Athenaeum bought it shortly after Stuarts death. Stuart used the head from the Athenaeum portrait for his bestknown full-length painting of Washington, the Lansdowne portrait (1796)named after its owner William Petty, Marquis of Lansdowneand for all of his subsequent

replicas. While profit motivated Stuarts portraits of Washington, he produced works of lasting importance that helped to fix Washingtons image in the American mind. In particular, the simplicity and austerity of the Athenaeum portrait confirmed the perception of Washington as the embodiment of republican dignity.


James Thomas Flexner, Americas Old Masters: First Artists of the New World (New York: Viking, 1939);

Neil Harris, The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 17901860 (New York: Braziller, 1966);

Richard McLanathan, Gilbert Stuart (New York: Abrams, 1986);

Charles Merrill Mount, Gilbert Stuart: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1964).