American Painting – Painters In America After The Conclusion Of Peace

AT the conclusion of peace, there were among the painters whose work attracts particular notice just four, practising their art in America. Of these, Joseph Wright was at Mount Vernon, painting portraits of General and Mrs. Washington to the order of the Count de Solms. A native of Bordentown, N. J., where he was born in 1756, he had been a pupil of West, and then visited Paris. Returning in 1783, he painted during the autumn of that year at headquarters, Princeton, a portrait of Washington, having first taken a plaster cast of the sitter’s head. When the United States mint was established at Philadelphia, he was appointed designer and die-sinker, and there is reason to believe that the first coins and medals executed in this country were his handiwork. He died, a victim of the plague which ravaged Philadelphia, in 1793.

In the latter city were residing at the termination of the war the three others of the four painters alluded to above : Robert Edge Pine, Matthew Pratt, and C. W. Peale.

For Boston’s share in the story of American painting is by this time retrospective, and remained so until Stuart settled there ten years later. For the present the attractions of Philadelphia, as the seat of government and fashion, were superior. It was the biggest city in the country. No other could boast of so many streets, arranged with regularity and well paved, but so full of filth and dead cats and dogs that their condition was made the subject of a satire by Francis Hopkinson, bet-ter known as the author of the ” Battle of the Kegs.” No other city could boast so large a population or so much renown. There Franklin had made his discoveries, the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and Congress had deliberated. No other city was so rich, so extravagant, so fashionable. Lee, in his correspondence with Washington, described it as an attractive scene of amusements and debauch; and Lovel, also writing to Washington, had called it a place of crucifying expenses.* Moreover, her citizens had the shrewdness to permit one permanent theatre as a concession to the unregenerate taste of Senators and Congressmen; although there was a strong objection to legalising this new species of luxury and dissipation.

It was the Honourable Francis Hopkinson, memtioned above, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a graduate of Princeton, and an Admiralty Judge of Pennsylvania, who was the first in this country to sit to the Englishman, Pine. The latter, born in London in 1742, a son of John Pine the engraver, arrived in 1784, and settled in Philadelphia, causing no little stir by exhibiting privately to the select few—” the manners and morals of the Quaker City forbid-ding its exposure to the common eye “—the first cast of the ” Venus de Medici ” brought to this country.

It was his ambition, in which he anticipated Trumbull, to paint a series of historical pictures, commemorating the events of the Revolution and including portraits of the principal participants. For this purpose, in the intervals of his labours as a teacher of drawing and a painter of occasional portraits, he executed a number of ” distinguished heads.” Among the latter were studies of Washington, General Gates, Charles Carroll, and Baron Steuben. However, before he could realise his ambition, he died in 1790, at Philadelphia.

” At the corner of Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, a few years since,” wrote Tuckerman in 1867, ” hung a shop-sign, representing a cock in a barn-yard, which attracted much attention by its manifest superiority to such insignia in general.” It was from the brush of Matthew Pratt (born at Philadelphia in 1734) , who also executed a famous sign-board, containing portraits of leaders of the Convention of 1788, which used to hang at the corner of Chestnut and Fourth Streets.

For in those days (I quote from J. B. Mc-Master) the numbering of shops and houses had not yet come into fashion, and every business street presented an endless succession of golden balls, of blue gloves, of crowns and sceptres, dogs and rainbows, elephants and horseshoes. They served sometimes as advertisements of the business, some-times merely as designation of the shops, which were indicated popularly in the newspapers by their signs. The custom still lingers, but now we are accustomed to regard the sign as bearing a direct relation to the character of the business it advertises. One hundred years ago, however, no such relation was understood to exist, and it was not thought remarkable that Philip Freeman should keep his famous bookstore at Boston at the ” Blue Glove ” on Union Street.

Through the exigencies of the times in which he lived, Pratt painted many such signs, and seems to have gained among his contemporaries more reputation for them than for his portraits. Perhaps not unjustly, since the latter, as may be seen in the portrait of Cadwallader Colden, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of New York, 1761-1775, which now hangs in the Chamber of Commerce, New York, are heavy in colour and laboriously dignified. They reproduce the worst features of West, with whom Pratt studied for two years and a half, being, indeed, his first American pupil. The occasion of his visit to London was to escort thither his relative, Miss Shewell, the long-affianced bride of West, to whom he gave her away ” at St. Martin’s in the Strand. The sojourn in his master’s studio is commemorated in The American School of the Metropolitan Museum, his most important work. The figure to the left, with the hat on, is West’s, who is represented in the act of’ criticising one of Pratt’s drawings, while the other students listen. With the exception of this visit to London, one to Ireland in 1770, and another to New York in 1772, Pratt’s life was spent in Philadelphia, and there he died in 1805.

But, by all odds, the most famous resident American painter of the period, and the one most interesting to ourselves, is Charles Willson (or Wilson) Peale; for his life was remarkably characteristic of the time, and so intimately related to some of its most important events. Born at Chesterton, Maryland, in 1741, he displayed from his youth mechanical ability and remarkable versatility. In early life he proved himself a clever worker in leather, wood, and metal. He could make a harness, a clock, or silver moulding ; he stuffed birds, extracted, re-paired, and manufactured teeth, and delivered popular lectures. By degrees, discovering some skill in drawing, he first took lessons in Annapolis from the Swedish painter, Gustavus Hesselius, then studied under Copley in Boston, and finally with West in London. Upon his return to this country he lived for two years in Annapolis, and in 1772 painted the first life-size portrait of Washington, showing him in his aspect before the Revolution. Washington was at the time forty years old, and is represented as a Virginia colonel, in blue coat, scarlet facings, scarlet waistcoat and breeches, and a purple scarf over the left shoulder. It was the uniform in which he had served eighteen years before against the French and Indians near the headwaters of the Ohio, and in which a year later he had taken part in Braddock’s disastrous expedition, where his coolness and bravery saved a remnant of the force.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, Peale joined the army and commanded a company at the battles of Trenton and Germantown. In the intervals of fighting he worked upon his second portrait of Washington, which had been commissioned by Congress. The picture was begun during the gloomy winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, and continued at Monmouth. Here Washington suggested introducing as a background the view from the window of the farmhouse in which he was at the time sitting for his portrait, and Peale painted in the Monmouth Courthouse with a body of Hessians issuing from it under guard. Later, when he finished the picture at Princeton, he added a view of Nassau Hall. In all he painted fourteen portraits of Washington, and it is upon these, although his work includes the portraits of many other famous men, that his reputation is chiefly based.

It is customary to speak of these portraits as being more interesting in the way of memorials than as works of art. Yet it may be doubted if this estimate is just, for Peale’s portraits have an actuality as vivid as Copley’s. Ile lacked, it is true, the latter’s versatility, his elegance of suggestion, and facility in rendering sumptuous fabrics, because he was more concerned with virility of character in men than with the graces of femininity. He had even less feeling than Copley for the æsthetic qualities of painting, as in itself a source of emotional expression; for with him it was purely a means to an end. Yet within this narrow conception of art he was so single-minded and sincere that his pictures are extraordinarily convincing, and, if you view them for what they aimed to be, faithful records of objective facts, most stimulating and conclusive. They are the work of a man who in many respects was less than a painter, but in others very much more.

He was active in the service of his country as in that of art. In addition to his military career, he had been a member of the Philadelphia Convention of 1777. Having discovered some mammoth bones, he commenced a collection of objects relating to the sciences and arts, which was the first step in the direction. of a museum in this country. He also attempted to establish in Philadelphia a school of fine arts, and was successful in organising the first exhibition of paintings. Finally, in 1805, he co-operated in the foundation of the Pennsylvania Academy, the oldest of all our existing art institutions. For the New York Academy of Fine Arts, though founded four years earlier, had succumbed to straitened circumstances, and it was not until 1828 that the present National Academy of Design was launched upon its career. It is an interesting characteristic of the Pennsylvania Academy that, while its promoters included some painters, it’s management has always been in the hands of laymen. Its original object, as set forth in its parchment of incorporation, was :

” To promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts in the United States of America by introducing correct and elegant copies from works of the first masters in Sculpture and Painting, and by thus facilitating the access to such standards, and also by conferring moderate but honourable premiums, and otherwise assisting studies and exciting the efforts of artists, gradually to’ unfold, enlighten and invigorate the talents of our countrymen.”

This quaintly expresses the high and stalwart purpose of the times ; a consciousness of the limited conditions of the start, a conviction of the harvest of the future; and among the contemporary painters none was so representative of his time as Charles Wilson Peale.

On the other hand, the great exception to the otherwise limited conditions of the period was Gilbert Stuart; for his qualifications as a painter were not to be rivalled by any other American for nearly half a century. He was born in 1755, at Narragansett, where his father, a Scotch refugee, who had been mixed up in the troubles of the Pretender, owned a snuff-grinding mill on the Petaquamscott Pond. He had married a Welsh lady, from whom the son inherited a taste for music and skill in playing the organ. The boy, when quite young, had shown an inclination for drawing, in which he was encouraged by a local physician, Dr. William Hunter. In course of time a Scotch painter, Cosmo Alexander, paid a visit to Newport. He was attracted by the promise of talent in the youth, who was now eighteen, gave him some lessons, and invited his companionship in a journey back to Scotland, where he placed him in Glasgow University. Very shortly afterwards, however, Alexander died, and Stuart, friendless and homesick, found passage back to Newport on a collier. He continued to progress in his art, and was practising at Boston, when the first shots were fired at Lexington; whereupon, his family being of the Tory party, he made his way to New York and thence sailed for London. Not until all his funds were spent did he make application to West, who with characteristic kindness immediately befriended him, and, recognising his ability, took him into his own house and at length engaged him as an assistant. But, although he worked for eight years in West’s studio, he was uninfluenced by the latter’s point of view or method of painting.

Perhaps it was because of the Scotch and Welsh blood in his veins that he remained independent of all the tendencies around him and saw exclusively with his own eyes. In an age of considerable affectation, when public taste was largely moulded by the drama and the histrionic feeling was reflected in painting, his portraits were singularly devoid of any display. His aim was to get his sitters to reveal their natural selves, and to put them at their ease he exercised his remarkable gift as a raconteur, drawing freely from his store of anecdote and experience. It was the actual humanity of his subject, the individual character of the men or women before his easel, that enlisted his shrewd and sympathetic interest, and in defence of his frequent slur-ring over of the drapery parts of the picture he would say: ” I copy the works of God, and leave clothes to the tailor and mantua-maker.” Yet, if he felt the clothes to be characteristic of the personality and contributory to its expression, he would bestow upon them the most exact and loving care.

No better example of this could be ‘desired than the Portrait of Dr. Fothergill in his drab quaker costume. This famous London physician, who had been born in Yorkshire and educated in Edinburgh, warmly sympathised with the American Colonies and had espoused their cause in a pamphlet entitled ” Considerations Relative to the North American Colonies.” He had associated himself very closely with Franklin, and the latter’s comment on hearing of his death was, ” I can hardly conceive that a better man ever existed.” In full accord with the elevated refinement of the doctor’s personality are the exquisite modelling of the face and hands and the delicate craftsmanship exhibited in the rendering of the wig and coat and accessories. This early example of Stuart is all the more precious because of the dissimilarity which it presents to his usual, more vigorous, and suggestive method. For what distinguishes him from the famous English portrait painters of his day is the entire absence of a parti pris in his work; he does not set out to make a picture, but to seize with certainty and directness the actuality of the person in front of him. In doing so, he was accustomed to concentrate the emphasis on some salient feature. This is particularly illustrated in his famous portrait of Washington, known as the Athenaeum Portrait.

Stuart’s admiration for Washington had grown into a passion. He was upon the flood tide of success; ” tasked himself with six sitters a day,” had painted portraits of George III., and of the Prince of Wales; his position in the fashionable world of London—and he himself was a bon vivant—was assured; yet he gave up all to return to America, impelled by his admiration of Washington and his desire to paint this man among men. He reached New York in 1792, and two years later arrived in Philadelphia, during the session of Congress, to present to Washington a letter of introduction from John Jay. Those were stirring times. The ” Whisky Boys ” were rioting against the tax on liquors ; the nation was in commotion over the stop-page on the high seas of American merchantmen by British privateers, and everywhere clanged the opposing arguments of Federalists and anti-Federalists, of Republicans and Democrats. Amidst the tumult of passion and prejudice reared the strong, calm personality of Washington. In his presence Stuart, who had seen all manner of men from high to low without blinking, confesses that he lost his self-possession. The first attempt at a portrait was a failure; the artist rubbed it out; the anecdotes with which he had beguiled other men into revealing their inner selves were of no avail to unmask the impassive calm of Washing-ton. A second picture was begun ; Stuart had discovered that upon the experiences of the late war Washington would expand. He painted the portrait, which was presented to Lord Landsdown and is now in England. It is known as the Lansdown Portrait, a full length, with left hand on the sword-hilt and the other extended. Still later, at Mrs. Washington’s request, the President gave another sitting, and in 1796 the Athenaeum Portrait was produced. It came nearest to Stuart’s conception of his subject, and he delayed to finish it, that he might not have to part with it. After his death it was sold by his widow, and presented to the Athenæum, Boston. It now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in, that city. These three, the first of which was destroyed by the artist, were the only portraits of Washington that Stuart made from life. The numerous others are either replicas of these or imaginary portraits, such as the Washington on Dorchester Heights.

While Peale’s first portrait of Washington represents him in his prime, the Athenaeum shows him in the evening of life, when the stress of day had been succeeded by ample calm. It illustrates also Stuart’s faculty for seizing on the vital, salient features of the subject. ” There were,” he him-self said, features in Washington’s face totally different from what I have observed in any other human being; the sockets of the eyes, for instance, were larger than I ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features were indicative of strong passion, yet, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command made him appear a man of different class in the eyes of the world.”

The colour of Washington’s eyes was a light, greyish blue, but, according to Mr. Custis, Stuart painted them of a deeper blue, saying: ” In a hundred years they will have faded to the right colour.” The immobility of the mouth is due to the loss of teeth and to the ill-fitting substitutes constructed by Wilson Peale.

In 1794 Stuart settled in Boston, where he continued to reside until his death in 1828. His career stands out in the early chapter of American painting as a single unrelated episode. He was the only American of his day who was in the true sense a painter. Beside him Peale and even Cop-ley are still limners, enclosing figures in hard out-lines and laying on the colours with tight and rigid primness, so that, as we have remarked, there is little or no difference in texture between the flesh parts and the fabrics, no suggestion of the figures being enveloped in atmosphere or illumined with natural light, very little also of living movement in gestures and poses. Their work, as compared with Stuart’s, betrays the feeling of the draughts-man, who secures first the exact form of his objects and then increases their semblance to reality by overlaying colour. Stuart’s, on the other hand, has its origin in brushwork, guided by a painter’s way of seeing his subject as an arrangement of coloured masses, variously affected by light and atmosphere. Consequently his outlines are varied —defined, indefinite, firm, or fluent, as they appear in life ; the flesh, solid and yet supple, glows with light, its texture clearly differentiated from the other textures in the picture; the expression of the faces is animated with life, and the figures are easy and elastic in their poses. Moreover, while Peale and Copley elaborately recorded as far as they could all that was presented to the eye, Stuart summarised his impressions in a forceful generalisation.

He was unrelated to the conditions that preceded and clustered round 1784, and differed in the character of his achievement from any contemporaries either in America or England. For, when Stuart arrived in London he was only twenty years old, too young to have been permanently affected by the lack of opportunity in his native country, and, perhaps because of that blend of Scotch and Welsh blood in his veins, too independent to be directly influenced by West or anybody else. He looked upon life with his own eyes, and discovered for himself a way of seeing and representing what he saw. The sum of his work is uneven in quality, but at its best it anticipated the brilliant suggestiveness of modern brushwork.

For this very reason one may possibly feel that his portraits have less of the flavour of the period than those of Peale and Copley and his other American contemporaries. In the light of our present study, which is not to drag the beginnings of American painting into remorseless comparison with the finer achievements of our modern painters, but to put them back in imagination into the scenes and conditions of which they were a part, Stuart’s share in the story may seem an anachronism. It was admiration of Washington personally that drew him back to this country, not a zeal for re-publican ideas, in the furtherance of which he had borne no part. He did not share in the life-spirit of the nation, and it may be suspected that his portraits are more than a little tinctured with an elegant cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, be-fore the grimly intellectual or austerely visionary faces of Smibert’s New England divines, the precise elegance and proud self-sufficiency of Copley’s men and women of the world, or Peale’s bald masculine records of the man upon whom devolved the leadership of a new nation, we can recognise a series of types and in our imagination reconstruct their environment. The very limitations of the painters possess a value of human and historical interest. We may transport ourselves beyond the then present, as the founders of the nation did, ” and feel the future in the instant.”