American Painting – Colonial And Revolutionary Conditions

IN 1784 the House met in Philadelphia to ratify the Treaty of Peace. After seven years of struggle the United States of America had shaken off the foreign yoke and were commencing another struggle of seven years among themselves before their full birthright as a united nation should be established. Once more, as during the much longer struggle of the United Provinces against Spain, a new nation had been born, and a combination of racial energy and local ad-vantages was to produce an extraordinary harvest of national development. But it was not to include, as in the case of Holland, ‘an immediate development in the art of painting.

For the latter, something more is needed than a virgin soil, spotted over, as in Pre-Revolutionary America, with a few isolated growths, struggling bravely, but at a disadvantage, in an uncongenial environment. Wherever in the world painting has flourished, it has done so after a period of development, gradually enriched by the accumulation of local or borrowed traditions, until at length it has blossomed into independent vigour.

Such scatterings of tradition as existed during the Colonial period had been derived from England, and reflected mostly the poor conditions of English portrait painting which prevailed before the rise of Reynolds and Gainsborough. Even the influence of the latter, when it came to be established, was overshadowed, so far as Americans were concerned, by that of their countryman, West, whose extraordinary reputation among his con-temporaries has not been sustained by subsequent judgment.

Nor in the years preceding the Revolution had the scanty traditions of painting been favoured by local environments. Men’s minds were turned to other things than art, and the only conception held of painting was as a means of producing portraits. In the language of the times, the ” limner (this title itself a corruption of the old English word “illuminer,” namely, of manuscripts) was spoken of as having an accurate ” pencil in the delineation of ” counterfeit presentments.” The school from which he had graduated was more than seldom that of carriage painting.

Such had been the start of John Smibert, a native of Edinburgh. He reached this country in 1720, three years after the arrival of Peter Pelham, portrait painter and mezzotint engraver, and seven years after that of the Swedish painter, Gustavus Hesselius, who is credited with having been the earliest painter in this country. In England Smibert had had the good fortune to be taken up by Dean, afterwards Bishop, Berkeley, accompanying him to Italy, and later to Rhode Island, when the philosopher-philanthropist came over to found a missionary college in this country for the conversion of the Indians. At what is now Middletown, three miles from Newport, Berkeley bought an estate which he called Whitehall, and for two years and a half officiated at Trinity Church, Newport, visited the Narragansett Indians, and worked upon his book, ” The Minute Philosopher,” writing the greater part of it in a crevice in the cliffs over-looking the sea. It was at this time that Smibert executed the portrait group of Berkeley surrounded by his family, which picture, together with the Dean’s library of a thousand volumes, became the property of Yale College. When, in consequence of the failure of the home government to give financial support to his scheme, Berkeley returned to England, Smibert established himself in Boston, and lived there until his death in 1751.

It is characteristic of the times that his sitters were chiefly the New England divines, those leaders of a stern theocracy that exercised political as well as spiritual authority. Think of the mental and moral atmosphere which surrounded the beginnings in this country of an art which we regard to-day as making an appeal to our aesthetic sensations. Not even in the sister art of literature, though much had been written, had any work of the imagination been produced, nor would be until after 1820. Upon political pamphlets, or local records of places, persons, and events, the writers had expended their activity; their intellectual force upon the subtleties of religious controversy. Such appeals as had been made to men’s imaginations were of the kind that may be read in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, whose keen mind revelled in analysing the vividly imagined horrors of hell.

” O sinner,” he preached,* .” consider the fearful danger you are in; it is a great furnace of wrath, that you are held over in the hands of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed, as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell !—you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it and burn it asunder. It is everlasting wrath. You will know certainly that you will wear out long ages, millions and millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this Almighty merciless vengeance; and then, when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point of what remains.”

Nor was this awful fate to be avoided by a man’s own doing. All humanity—men, women, and little children—all for the sin of one man and one woman, were predestined to this horror for eternity; only the ” goodness ” of God selected at gracious random a few souls from damnation. These were conscious of being saved, and were correspondingly puffed up with self-satisfied righteousness. All their fellows lay under the thick pall of eternal wrath; by it was darkened the sky of their lives ; lives already hardened through long conflict with severe physical conditions and inured to the constant presence of death and danger. What wonder that their hardy and indomitable natures took refuge in a grim and strenuous severity. The theatre in New England was proscribed. Even as late as 1784 Massachusetts re-enacted the earlier sharp laws against the stage; and New York and Philadelphia still frowned upon it.

To this mental and moral rigour, however, the Southern States presented a notable contrast. Baltimore was a warm supporter of the drama, and much addicted to balls and routs, while the open-air promenades of gaily-dressed people, with their scenes of courtship and merriment, were a distinguished feature of her social life. Charleston also was famous for wealth and gaiety and for the elegance of her homes. In these and in the country mansions, thickly sown over the Southern States, were to be found most of the pictures which had been imported from Europe. It would seem as if the conditions of life among these descendants of cavalier settlers should have been favourable to art, yet it is a strange fact that it was not in the rich, luxurious South, but out of the flinty rigour of the North and East that American painting began its thrifty growth. Some of the painters, it is true, made professional tours through the South, and Southerners, attracted to Philadelphia, when it be-came the capital of Government and fashion, were among the best patrons of the painters then established in that city. Nevertheless the fact remains, that not Charleston or Baltimore, but Philadelphia and Boston are the places chiefly identified with the early beginnings of American painting.

In pre-Revolutionary times the most notable of the native-born painters were Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. By his contemporaries West was regarded as a prodigy. That a child, born in 1738, in a Quaker village, Springfield, near Philadelphia, and reared among conditions of strict and primitive simplicity, should have evolved out of himself a craving to be an artist; that his earliest lessons in colour had been derived from the Indians, in the crude pigments of yellow, red, and blue with which they decorated their own persons; that, after the present of a paint box from a certain Mr. Pennington, the youth was able in time to produce results that secured him commissions for portraits in Philadelphia and later in New York, and eventually, in his twenty-second year, attracted a patron who provided the necessary means for his visit to Rome—all this seemed phenomenal. And so also was his reception when at length he arrived in London.

But from this point he belongs to England rather than to America ; so completely that, when Reynolds died, West was elected President of the Royal Academy, and received the order of Knighthood. He died in 1820, and was buried with pomp in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It is true, however, that he had an indirect influence upon his countrymen, for his success fired their imaginations, and his assistance was generously given to American students who had found their way to London. Yet this influence was unfortunate. The English, giving him the privileges of a pampered child, had encouraged him in the direction in which Reynolds, fortunately for himself, had been discouraged. Accordingly, while some of West’s portraits, such as that of C. W. Peale, possess considerable vivacity, his works of imagination are pompous and pretentious in conception, in technique tentative and clumsy. They created a taste for grandiloquent subject rather than for painter-like excellence of workmanship. But, as we shall frequently have occasion to notice, the general aim of painting in the nineteenth century, In which American painting will share, will be to get away from excessive preoccupation with subject, and more and more to develop the resources of painting, as an art, independent of literary alliances. So in this way, also, West is cut off from the stream of movement.

On the other hand, John Singleton Copley, although he subsequently settled down in England, remains a vital factor in the story of American painting. He identified himself very closely with pre-Revolutionary times by the number of his portraits of eminent men and women; and is himself also distinguished even to this day for the life-like vivacity of these portraits and for his skill in painting. Indeed, this Boston painter, practically self-taught, and with no examples of painting to guide him, save the portraits by Smibert and such of West’s as had found their way into the homes of the city, developed a facility of craftmanship that, considering the straitness of his opportunity, is most remarkable. And it is to be observed that his powers were fully matured before he settled in England.

Copley’s parents had come from Ireland, and settled in Boston to engage in the tobacco business. About the time of his son’s birth (1737) , the father, Richard Copley, died, and the boy was named after his maternal grandfather, John Singleton, of Quin-ville Abbey, County Clare. Ten years later the mother married that Peter Pelham, painter and mezzotint-engraver and precursor of Smibert, who has been mentioned above. His assistance to young Copley, who early showed a gift for drawing, must have been considerable, especially as the stepfather taught him his own art of engraving. When Pelham died, in the same year as Smibert, Copley was fourteen, and for the rest had to be his own master. He had no lack of commissions, however, and his progress was rapid.

At this time Boston was a city of some eighteen thousand inhabitants, confined to three hills, which gave it its second name of Trimountain. As yet there was no bridge across the Charles River, and at high tides the city was cut off from connection with the mainland. The better class of dwellings were on the west side ; houses of brick, with Corinthian pilasters adorning the façades, and columned porches covered with roses and honeysuckles, and approached by sandstone steps which led up from gardens filled with English elms and shrubs. The fine furniture-in these dwellings was from England or France. Moreover, since Smibert’s day the rigour of life was lessening. Two conditions had contributed to the change. In the first place, the domination of the divines had given way before the rising influence of laymen, such as Otis and Samuel Adams; men of broad culture who became by force of character and through their zeal in public affairs the natural leaders of the community. In the second place, class distinction had become more defined. The men and women who throng the canvases of Copley are conscious of their worth and importance, perhaps more than a little self-conscious. ” Pride of birth had not then been superseded by pride of wealth. The distinction of gentle blood was cherished. Equality had begun to assert itself only as a political axiom; as a social principle, it had not dawned upon the ultra-reformers.”

The Portrait of Lady Wentworth, painted when she was nineteen and the artist twenty-eight, shows him in full possession of his powers. It is true that the draperies are inclined to be metallic in texture, and the flesh parts marble-like in polish and hardness ; indeed, that the various textures throughout the picture have a prevailing similarity of shining rigidity, since the suggestion of atmosphere is lacking, as it is more or less in all of Copley’s works.

” Yet, the want of ease and nature in his portraits is as authentic as the costumes. They are generally dignified, elaborate, and more or less ostentatious and somewhat mechanical, but we recognise in these very traits the best evidence of their correctness. They illustrate the men and women of the day, when pride, decorum, and an elegance, sometimes ungraceful but always impressive, marked the dress and air of the higher classes. The hardness of the outlines and the semi-official aspect of the figures correspond with the spirit of those times.”

Despite, however, some deficiency of painter-like quality, the portrait of Lady Wentworth bears an impress of fine authority and is full of personal character.

This Boston belle, who is represented toying with the chain of a captive flying squirrel (a detail, which Copley several times introduced into his pictures) , was a daughter of Samuel Wentworth, and had been engaged to her cousin, John Wentworth, the last Royal Governor of New Hampshire. But, in pique at his prolonged absence on some affair of business, she married Theodore Atkinson, and it is as his wife that she is here represented. He died, however, in a few years, and within a fortnight of his funeral she married her old love. When the troubles with the Mother Country arose she accompanied her husband to England. He was appointed Governor of Nova Scotia, holding the position from 1792 to 1808, when he resigned, but continued to live in Halifax until his death in 1820. He had been created a baronet in 1795 ; and three years later Lady Frances was made a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, with permission, however, to live abroad. For eleven years she lived in. Nova Scotia, and then returned to England, where she died in 1813.

Considered on the one hand solely as a personal document, this picture has extraordinary interest.

What an air of birth and breeding the lady exhibits, a consciousness of indisputable social rank and beauty; what a complete poise of self-possession, tinctured, however, with just a flavour of prim severity! How the portrait vivifies a certain phase of the past to our imagination! Nor less remark-able is the technical charm of the picture, when one remembers out of what a poverty of artistic opportunity Copley had emerged to this proficiency. Only a few years separate his art from Smibert’s, and yet it is as far in advance of the latter’s as the freer social conditions of Copley’s day surpass in attractiveness the narrow rigidity of Smibert’s. And it is precisely these altered social conditions which had much, perhaps most, to do with Copley’s achievement. Himself of good family, handsome, brilliant in manner, and early gaining skill and success as a painter, he moved in the best society, and dressed and lived in style. Within the limited range of New England life he played such a part as Van Dyck in his day played in the larger world of’ Antwerp and London. His art, moreover, has so much of the same kind of distinction as Van Dyck’s that one hazards a belief it might have approached it very closely in degree of distinction also, had his early opportunities been as favourable.

In 1769, when he was thirty-two years old, Copley, now a thoroughly successful painter, married the daughter of Mr. Richard Clarke, a wealthy merchant and agent of the East India Company, to whom later was consigned that historic cargo of tea which was flung into Boston harbour. Anticipating the trouble with England, Copley went to Rome, where he painted the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard, the former a wealthy planter of South Carolina, and his wife, before, her marriage a Miss Alice DeLancey, of Mamaroneck, New York. Her figure, as she submits a sketch to her husband, is full of charm; but his exhibits Copley’s weakest trait of hardness in drawing. Moreover, the elaborate artificiality of the whole composition, in so marked a contrast to the rather severe refinement of the earlier portrait, throws an interesting side-light, both on the influences he had encountered since leaving home and on his own predilections. We see that he had already come under the fascination of that pretentious grandiloquence which was passing for the ” grand style” in Europe; and may judge from the rapidity with which he imitated this mannerism, that at heart he was disposed toward it. It is an interesting example of the artistic spirit, curbed by the narrowness of environment, such as Copley experienced in Boston, bursting forth under freer conditions. Unhappily, the latter, in his case, were inclined to be meritricious.

From Rome the painter went to London, where he was kindly received by West, and soon became popular with a public already familiar with his work through the exhibitions of the Royal Academy. His wife joined him, sailing in the last American ship which passed out of Boston harbour under the British ensign, and the rest of his life was spent in England. Here he gained a great reputation for historical pictures, such as The Death of Chatham. But they were little more than an aggregation of portraits, and do not compare in actual artistic merit with such a single portrait as that of Lady Wentworth. He died in 1815, at the age of seventy-eight, and was buried in the Church of St. John, at Croydon, near London. His son, under the title of Lord Lyndhurst, was three times Lord Chancellor of England.

West had left this country before there was any suggestion of strained relations with England, and had become so identified with the latter that probably no question of choice of allegiance occurred to him. With Copley, however, it was different. Clearly in his case the instinct of the artist was stronger than that of the patriot. He was the first of a numerous band of American painters who have deliberately chosen to live in Europe, because there they could find an atmosphere more congenial to their art.

We have now to consider a group of men who, after studying abroad, with equal deliberation re-turned home or settled here, to throw in their lot with the new nation.