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- John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854), born a deaf-mute in rural
Connecticut, was an itinerant portrait artist who created images of American
life during the formative period of the nation, images of haunting beauty.
He was a key formulator of a style of American folk portraiture that came
to dominate rural New England, a striking adaptation of the English Grand
Manner filtered through the works of Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl.
The Grand Manner style entailed a romanticized view of the sitter, with
rich colors and an exploration of detail in the sitter's features, costume
and setting. Working in a folk art style that emphasized simpler settings,
broad, flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features, Brewster
achieved a directness and intensity of vision rarely equaled.
- Brewster lived at a time of beginnings: Americans were
starting a new republic and a wealthy merchant class was forming; Deaf
people came together and structured a society and language; and the limner's
art was popular as never before. Brewster's life and artistic career was
a complex intersection of four worlds his Puritan family; the Federalist
elite whose portraits he painted; the Deaf-World; and the art world
and these worlds combined to define who he was as an historical figure.
Brewster was not an artist who incidentally was 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, visual people.
- Beginning in the 1790s, Brewster traveled widely in Connecticut,
Maine, Massachusetts, and eastern New York State in search of portrait
commissions. Brewster's extant portraits show his ability to produce delicate
and sensitive likenesses in full-size or miniature, and in oil on canvas
or ivory. He was especially successful in capturing the innocence of childhood
in his signature full-length likenesses of young children. In 1854 Brewster
died at age eighty-eight, leaving an invaluable record of his era and a
priceless artistic legacy.
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