Faces of a New Nation

by Lisa Reitzes

 



 

Although painters were active all along the eastern seaboard and up the Hudson River in the Albany area, the artistic center of colonial America in the mid-eighteenth century was Boston. English-trained practitioners such as John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn (Cat. No.2), along with the native-born Robert Feke -- all of whom established a clientele in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island -- provided the artistic and commercial foundation for the emergence of John Singleton Copley (Cat. No.3), long considered America's first master painter. Copley's successful and prolific career in Boston, with over three hundred paintings completed between 1756 and 1774, was exceptional in many ways and does not exemplify the standard practice of art in the colonies. Nevertheless, his education, studio methods, and aspirations provide the example of a provincial artist seeking to expand his technical skill, social connections, and artistic fluency so that he might prosper on a larger stage. In other words, Copley and his clients were participating in an American colonial society pursuing European definitions of sophistication and cultural status. Indeed, one of the intriguing ironies of the late colonial period is that the fine arts thrived in direct relationship to the "Englishness" of the professional and merchant classes and their growing eagerness to display the fruits of their commercial prosperity. In their cosmopolitan tastes -- expressed through language, manners, costume, and purchase of luxury goods (including paintings) -- these patrons showed that, regardless of the economic and political differences with the Crown, "true culture" resided abroad.

Copley certainly understood that his ability to advance in the artistic world depended on his exposure to the highest levels of culture through traveling and studying in Europe. Despite his unmatched status as a portraitist in Boston, Copley complained that in America painting was regarded as just another craft, "like that of a Carpenter tailor or shoemaker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World."[2] Americans, he concluded, were "people entirely destitute of all just Ideas in the Arts."[3] Copley's model for how to accomplish this transformation from artist to Artist was Benjamin West (Cat. No.6), who by the time of the Revolution had become an esteemed London painter and court artist to King George III, culminating in his work in the 1780s on the King's private chapel at Windsor Castle. From the 1760s through the 1820s West also provided encouragement and instruction for young Americans seeking to become painters. In addition to Copley, Charles Willson Peale (Cat. No.5), Gilbert Stuart (Cat. No.7), Ralph Earl (Cat. No.4), William Dunlap (Cat. No. 4a), Rembrandt Peale (Cat. Nos. 9, 9a), Thomas Sully (Cat. No. 13), and Samuel Lovett Waldo (Cat. No. 11), to name only the artists represented in this collection, benefited from West's expertise in the Grand Manner and his standing in the Royal Academy and London society. "West, handsome and affable, had a sense of mission which was greater than even his desire for personal gain. His exalted purpose and supreme confidence in his own ability were reassuring to his students."[4]

A few of West's proteges, notably Washington Allston and Samuel F. B. Morse, attempted to become historical painters, with mixed results in a society unaccustomed to, or uninterested in, the literate complexities of the academic tradition. But most of West's followers excelled in portraiture after their return to America, and for two generations they produced elegant and skillful images of the political, social, and economic elite of the new nation -- with Stuart in Boston, Sully and the Peales in Philadelphia, and Waldo in New York. By the early nineteenth century, American artists depended on the patronage of the privileged few but also hoped for the emergence of a culture in which the American democratic experiment would extend to the fine arts, where "American civic spirit would nourish great art."[5]

 

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