Brewster's Youth and Early Portraits, 1766-1800

Although little is known about Brewster's childhood and youth, it seems likely that his early years were spent largely within a close circle of family and friends. He was born on May 30/31, 1766, the third child of Dr. John and Mary (Durkee) Brewster of Hampton, Connecticut. Being deaf-mute from birth and growing up long before the development of standardized signing systems for the deaf, Brewster probably could only communicate well with those closest to him. His mother died when he was seventeen; his father and new stepmother Ruth Avery of Brooklyn, Connecticut would have four more children.
The earliest known reference to Brewster appears in the diary of Reverend James Cogswell of nearby Windham, Connecticut, in 1790 and 1791. Cogsewll saw Brewster as having a "good Disposition & ingenious mind" along with a "Genius for painting" but admitted that he could not understand the young man's signs.
These entries indicate clearly that Brewster had learned to make his way in a hearing world through a variety of means: rudimentary signs probably known only to a close circle of family and friends; some ability to write; an inquisitive mind; an engaging personality, and a talent with the paintbrush. Brewster learned to paint from Reverend Joseph Steward, a friend and fellow pastor of Reverend Cogswell, about 1790. Steward was largely self-taught, although he saw and imitated the way in which Ralph Earl tailored the English Grand Manner to American taste. Where Earl adapted the regal poses and opulent surroundings of the English style by inserting realistic settings and more casual likenesses, Steward simplified Earl's compositions to better suit his limited facility with the brush.
Brewster's earliest known works resemble Earl's portraits in scale, composition, costume and setting, while showing a strong sense of visual pattern through broad, flat areas of color. The overall effect, despite the simplicity of style, was an impressive likeness that ably communicated the prosperity, propriety, and education of the sitter.
Over the course of the next few years, however, Brewster moved well beyond the familiar, close-knit communities around Hampton. The artist's younger brother, Dr. Royal Brewster, married and moved to Buxton, Maine in late 1795. John Brewster apparently moved to Maine at that time or shortly thereafter, and painted likenesses in and around Portland in between trips back to Connecticut. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Brewster was quickly developing a mature portrait style and seemed poised for a successful career as an itinerant artist.



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