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A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.

June 3 - September 10, 2006


(above: John Brewster, Jr. (1766-1854), Boy Holding a Book, c. 1810, Florence Griswold Museum)


Opening on June 3rd and running through the summer exhibition season, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut is presenting a new exhibition entitled A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr. Organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, the exhibition features 40 portraits illustrating the long and successful career of John Brewster, Jr. (1766-1854), one of the country's most prominent early painters.

The details of Brewster's life are as compelling as his art. The exhibition and accompanying book explores the four worlds that helped define Brewster and his art: his artistic influences, his distinctive painting style, his elite clientele, and the world of Deaf people in early America. The exhibition is hosted by the Florence Griswold Museum in association with the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, where Brewster was enrolled in its first class in 1817.

"The exhibition presents a fascinating glimpse of early America through the eyes of someone who lived in a world of silence. Like all great artists, John Brewster, Jr. transcended his personal challenges to leave an astonishing legacy," said Paul D'Ambrosio, Chief Curator, Fenimore Art Museum. The exhibition makes clear that Brewster was not an artist who was incidentally deaf but rather a Deaf artist, one in a long tradition that owes many of its features and achievements to the fact that Deaf people are, as scholars have noted, particularly visual.


Painter of Federal America

Born into a prominent family in Hampton, Connecticut, John Brewster, Jr. was an artist who, beginning in the 1790s, gave us hauntingly beautiful images of American life during the formative period of the nation. His techniques were rooted in European academic art but he moved beyond that rigidity to achieve a directness and intensity of vision that has rarely been equaled. His portraits have been hailed as "masterpieces of American painting" and Brewster himself is labeled "an undisputed master of the genre." (right: John Brewster, Jr. (1766-1854), One Shoe Off, 1807, Fenimore Art Museum)

Brewster traveled widely in New England and New York in search of portrait commissions. His subjects were the wealthy merchant class that arose after the Revolution. His pictures are renowned for their bold colors and decorative patterning which add greatly to his highly individual style. He is particularly noted for portraying children with an innocence and lack of sentimentality rarely achieved in portrait painting. This sensitivity is exemplified in Brewster's Boy Holding A Book, c. 1810, a work from the collection of the Florence Griswold Museum, where the direct gaze of the young boy's eyes seems at once both innocent and beyond his years.

Brewster lived at a time when Deaf people were developing their own language, social institutions, and culture. He was one of the first students to attend the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut when it opened in 1817; he was 51 years old. The artist's contributions to American culture are persuasively outlined in a companion book of the same title. Written by Dr. Harlan Lane of Northeastern University, the book provides the first major look at Brewster's life and art as well as a glimpse into New England history and the distinctive culture of the Deaf in America. Copies of the book are available in the Museum's Shop.


Wall texts from the exxhibition

Master text panel
Brewster's Youth and Early Portraits, 1766-1800
Expanding Horizons, 1800-1817
John Brewster Jr. and the Deaf World
Brewster Attends The Connecticut Asylum, 1817-1820
Brewster's Legacy, 1820-1854


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