Faces of a New Nation

by Lisa Reitzes



Russell Lynes, in The Art-Makers, observes that "Trying to carve a place for the arts in the hearts of one's countrymen in America in 1800 was like chipping a statue out of a block of ice.. ..It was a very rare citizen of the young republic who gave art a second thought, because almost no one gave it a first thought."[1] Although it is certainly true that the average citizen of the new United States had relatively little to do with the fine arts, it is also true that some early American colonists demonstrated an active interest in acquiring paintings, even by the late seventeenth century. These patrons represented the affluent cultural elite of society, individuals and families who had the means and the social aspirations to purchase luxury items of display. The Dutch, who established New Amsterdam in the 1620s, brought with them an exuberant middle-class interest in pictures, but other colonial areas slowly began to provide markets for painters as well. By the early eighteenth century in New England, Calvinist admonitions about worldly vanity were increasingly replaced by Calvinist enthusiasm for worldly productivity, and affluent merchant families in Massachusetts and Rhode Island commissioned portraits to record their likenesses and their status. At a similar moment in Virginia and the Carolinas, wealthy planters who had poured all of their capital into cash crops began to build large permanent homes and to engage painters to embellish their newly refined spaces.

By the 1730s, European-born painters had crossed the Atlantic for a generation, and native-born artisans had begun to emerge to meet the social needs of the colonial mercantile aristocracies, whose patronage supported the evolution of the professional artist in pre-Revolution America. Indeed, the story of colonial American art concerns not just who wanted paintings, and for what purpose, but also who produced those paintings and how they came to be artists in North America. As the English colonies grappled with their cultural identities, including their governmental and economic relationships with the mother country, the fine arts became part of the debates about emulation, refinement, and independence.


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