Art in the New World
In a spirit of snobbish annoyance, the expatriate Henry James once counseled his readers that true art must wither in the “cruel air” of America. He was, of course, quite wrong; it did nothing of the sort. A century earlier, the English connoisseur Horace Walpole had written to his friend Horace Mann that the future of the arts and literature might well be in America: “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic.” In the course of time, that sanguine observation seems to have had more justification than James’ remark. According to some qualified critics, American art today is considered the standard by which developments in other countries of the Western world are measured.
Harsh conditions of life in colonial America, and for some years after, did not encourage any rapid development of the fine arts. Without the patronage of royalty, a monied aristocracy and an established church (which in other times and places provided such substantial encouragement and support), the artist in this country worked under certain handicaps that were peculiar to the New World. There were neither public art museums and academies nor private collections of any consequence in these remote reaches of the Atlantic world; no art school yet provided systematic, qualified instruction for the aspiring student. To understand the refinements of his calling as these had been perfected over the long past, to get expert instruction in the traditional techniques of his craft, and to enter fully into his artistic heritage, he had to turn to Europe or he would have to work things out for himself as best he could.
Throughout the colonial period, little distinction was made between the fine arts and the utilitarian crafts. As it was broadly used, the word “art” referred to skilled accomplishment in virtually any field of endeavor. “The Plow-Man that raiseth Grain,” counseled one early New Englander, “is more serviceable to Mankind than the Painter who only draws to please the Eye. The Carpenter who builds a good House to defend us from the Wind and Weather, is more serviceable than the curious Carver, who employs his Art to please the Fancy.” The lavish patronage that encouraged the extremes of virtuosity in the courts and capitals of Europe were unthinkable in the colonies. Indeed, it would be well into the 18th Century before an American painter could manage to make any sort of living solely by brush. The average colonist was perforce a jack-of-all-trades, like the many-sided Paul Revere.
Before John Singleton Copley quit Boston for good on the eve of the American Revolution to perfect his talents over seas, he found it mortifying that “people regarded painting no more than any other useful trade…like that of a carpenter, tailor, shoemaker, not as one of the most noble arts in the world.” Largely self-taught, and with few models of high quality to study and draw inspiration from, Copley epitomizes the problems and successes of the colonial painter.
Generations before Copley was born, and for generations after he quit the New World, there were professed artists (some of whom remain all but nameless) who, with or without formal training, limned the features of their friends and neighbors as sideline to other workaday jobs, such as producing shop signs or diverse decorations for home or ship. However, as colonial seaports grew in size and consequence, and as vessels shuttled with increasing frequency back and forth across the Atlantic, more artists and artisans from abroad—a few like John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn with established if moderate reputations—joined the local ranks. Some came, worked here more or less briefly, and left; others stayed on and contributed what they had in talent and ideas to an emerging American “school” of art. Smibert, a Scot who came to America in 1729, thought that the future of the arts was in this country, stayed on to die here in 1751. He left a record of having painted 241 portraits during his years in America. Benjamin Robert Haydon, a somewhat disillusioned English painter, once sourly observed that “portraiture is always independent of art and has little or nothing to do with it. It is one of the staple manufactures of the Empire. Wherever the British settle, where they colonize, they carry, and will always carry, trial by jury, horse racing, and portrait painting.”
It is true that by far the most numerous surviving examples of colonial art are portraits, although they were by no means all by English-born artists. There were also immigrant painters from the continent of Europe who won commissions from patrons of equally variegated national backgrounds. In 1712, Gustavus Hesselius arrived in America from Sweden, bringing with him a fair understanding of the international court style as it was practiced overseas. When he painted a portrait of a Delaware Indian chief for John Penn in 1735, he succeeded with a completely realistic likeness—the first convincing and sympathetic image of an Indian by any artist working in America. Again, in the year 1712, the English artist-naturalist Mark Catesby arrived in Virginia to record the flora and fauna of the American wilderness with comparable realism, anticipating the climactic efforts of John James Audubon by a full century. The tradition of realism has remained a durable strain in the history of American art.
Colonial painting came to full flower in the work of John Singleton Copley. Like so many other self-taught artists, he occasionally copied the composition and details of European engravings to achieve his purposes. Copy or not, his portraits are handsomely executed and foretell the ultimate refinements of his colonial work. No other colonial painter had his skill in putting on canvas the character and personality of his subjects; or an illusion of living reality and immediate presence, rather than simply the representation of a person. As John Adams wrote of Copley’s portraits, “You can scarcely help discoursing with them, asking questions and receiving answers.” Copley’s gifts were increasingly recognized by the gentry along the colonial seaboard and his commissions grew in number and in consequence. However, in June, 1774, for all his local success, and as war clouds gathered over the colonies, Copley sailed from America to improve his skills and establish his reputation in a wider world.
When Copley arrived in London (by way of Italy) in 1775, his contemporary, the Pennsylvania-born Quaker, Benjamin West, had been there for a dozen years and had already been name historical painter to George III. By the time, he was 25, West had reached the top of his profession. Attracted by his mounting reputation, hopeful colonial artists flocked to West’s studio for aid and advice which West, unstintingly, provided. Indeed, his home became a veritable school of American painters. West thought of portraiture as hack work and longed to paint episodes of ancient history, stories that would tell of classical republicanism and ancient virtues. With friendly support from the monarch, he initiated a series of subjects that set a vogue for Neo-classicism, years in advance of work in such vein by the French artists who would carry the style to its ultimate perfection. For the first time, England had a painter who led the avant-garde of European art.
When Copley arrived in London, West immediately introduced his compatriot to the right circles as he had promised he would do. By his own native genius, and fortified by his experience on the Continent, Copley quickly established himself as an important figure in the English art world. Like West, he, too, aspired to paint historical subjects, themes his colonial patrons had not encouraged him to develop. And, like West, Copley never returned to America. Before they died in the fullness of their years, both provincial artists had made substantial contributions to the English school of painting.