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American Portraiture of the 18th and 19th Centuries

What a Portrait Can Tell Us

Since colonial times, portraiture has been a tradition in American art. Merchants, politicians, and others of rising stature sought to have their image and status captured in the form of a portrait. The tradition and practice of portraiture continued after the Revolutionary War, as artists, though still heavily influenced by England and her traditions, sought to establish American styles and techniques. In the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, portraiture was the primary artistic activity in America.

A portrait is more than a pretty picture of a famous or wealthy person. A portrait is a historical and social document revealing information about the sitter and the period in which he/she lived. Portraits show people’s appearances, characteristics or actions. Displayed in a home for family, guests and servants to see, a portrait served as a symbol of the sitters’ status in society and place in their family heritage. Because the size of the portrait was directly related to its cost, size often, but not always, provides us with a measure of the sitter’s economic status. Full-length portraits usually included more visual information in the form of background material and items that a simple head-and-shoulders portrait could not provide.

Traditionally, artists painted portraits of famous people or others who could afford it. Only the wealthy could afford the services of a professionally trained artist. Most Americans were satisfied with the work of a craftsman or portraitist with little or no education or training in the field. These itinerant painters, moving from town to town, were often called limners. Limners would complete a likeness of a person, often in exchange for board and lodging.






Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, circa 1780
Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, c. 1780
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