American Portraiture of the 18th and 19th Centuries
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 peoples 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 sitters 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
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
Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, c. 1780
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