Art I: Professionals from the Provinces
Art I: Professionals from the Provinces
West and Copley. Only in painting did Americans prove that they could compete with the finest artists of Europe, achieving an international reputation and financial success equal to that of any of their peers working in Britain, Italy, or France. The success of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, while noteworthy in itself for their innovations in artistic style, genre, and themes, reveals a great deal about the cosmopolitan ideal against which American arts and letters proved, to colonists and foreigners alike, so inferior and provincial. To begin with, they were among the few artists born in the colonies who can accurately be called professionals, supporting themselves (quite handsomely) from the sale of their art alone. In defying the expectation that American artists had little to contribute to the international development of arts and letters, however, their careers ironically reinforced the idea that America should measure its achievements by European standards of artistic taste. While both Copley and West began in the colonies, they only realized the height of their critical and commercial success by going to Europe at crucial points in their development and spending the remainder of their lives there. As the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds advised Copley, “the example and instruction which you could have in Europe” would make Copley “one of the first
Painters in the world”—but only if he received this assistance “before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston.” No one working in their “little way” in Boston, Philadelphia, or New York could entertain serious hopes of becoming a great artist.
Training. The success of West and Copley seems all the more remarkable given their lack of early training. Painters in colonial America were self-taught, and they learned their basic skills from imported engravings and primitive limner portraits. The limner style, influenced by Puritan hostility to ornament, tended toward two dimensional, maplike faces with symmetrical patterning that tended to undermine pretensions to realism. While the demand for personal portraits to mark one’s social status stimulated a competitive market for commissions among a crowd of itinerant painters, only a few artists such as the Maryland painter John Hesselius managed to accumulate wealth from their work. John Wollaston, who came to the colonies in 1749 and worked throughout the colonies, left some three hundred portraits at his death. These artists mostly used a few conventional poses, expressions, and props drawn from the English court painter Godfrey Kneller and evoked little of their subject’s individuality. West met Wollaston and copied his skills in capturing the shimmer of satin and silk, but he quickly left for Rome to study the Old Masters.
An American in Rome and London. Leaving for Rome in 1760, West was the first of many Americans to go to Europe to get an artistic education they could not find at home. In many ways his career and his work alike came to resemble that of any young European artist equipped with his talent and ambition. In Rome, West saw the Apollo Belvedere at the Vatican—in its day the most important surviving antique statue—and became friends with Johann Winkelmann, a founder of neoclassical art theory. He copied the history paintings of another German expatriate, Anton Raphael Mengs. West arrived in London in 1763, equipped with his own skills with color and composition and a thorough training in the conventions and themes of neoclassical painting. In Aggrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1767), for example, West painted a theme taken from the Roman writer Tacitus. As with many neoclassical history canvases, West used classical buildings in the background to create a theatrical backdrop, against which a scene from a larger epic unfolds. The figures crowding the historical stage have stylized and unrealistic gestures and postures, and West used elaborate togas to show off his painting skill in the rendering of folds and the reflection of light. With this painting and many others that would follow, West demonstrated that artistic success in the later eighteenth century was not achieved through originality of style or theme but rather through the imitation of prevailing styles and tastes. One was not considered an artist unless one had acquired the cosmopolitan taste that was the proof of a truly international education.
Royal Patronage and the American School. By his example and his influence, West almost single-handedly paved the way for other American’s artistic success in painting. West’s later success with The Death of General Wolfe (1771) led him to the apex of the European art world. King George III, who became his friend, gave him a huge royal commission for a massive series of works, never to be completed, called The History of Revealed Religion. The size of his paintings, his income, and his reputation grew together, and after Sir Joshua Reynold’s tenure, West was named the second head of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art. West became not only the major recipient of the king’s patronage but almost a member of his family and kept work rooms in royal palaces while George III waged war on the American colonies. With this success West also became a mentor to several American artists seeking advice, employment, and instruction. His studio in London became “the American school,” where West advised and trained three generations of American painters, including Mathew Pratt, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, and Samuel F. B. Morse. West influenced the development of American art perhaps less through his own painting than by teaching and guiding young men who would become the leading painters in the following generation. With his international training, his importance in Britain’s art institutions for over forty years, and his influence on subsequent landscape and history painters in America, West established that Americans might become serious artists.
R. C. Alberts, Benjamin West: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978);
Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980);
James Thomas Flexner, America’s Old Masters: First Artists of the New World (New York: Viking, 1939);
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997);