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American Portraiture of the 18th and 19th Centuries
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The Artists

John Singleton Copley
Gilbert Stuart

What a Portrait Can Tell Us

Portrait painters ranged from the very well known to those whose lives remain a virtual mystery. Many painters of this period were influenced by styles and trends in England. During this time in American history, portrait artists were not valued for their individuality or creativity, but rather for their ability to depict their subjects in a realistic manner. Artists were considered to be another kind of tradesman, like a silversmith or a milliner. Most artists learned their skill like any other trade, through an apprenticeship.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) is often considered the finest painter of colonial America and the premiere portrait artist in America prior to the American Revolution. Contrary to the popular view of the time, Copley believed in the value of individuality and creativity as central to his career and viewed the role of the artist as superior to that of other tradesmen. Copley was a skilled draftsman and colorist and used his skills in his portraits of historical subjects. His works were both realistic and flattering, making him a favorite with upper class patrons. Copley sailed for Europe in 1774 amidst political turmoil in America, just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. He spent the remainder of his life working in England, painting portraits and developing his reputation as a history painter. His earliest works show the influence of his stepfather, an engraver, with whom he apprenticed, and later works make use of a technique called portrait d’apparat, portraying the subject with objects associated with his/her daily life.

Many of Copley’s works show his American patrons with clothes, objects and settings modeled after prints of European portraits. He copied anatomy drawings from European books, read theoretical treatises on art, and kept correspondence with two of the major artists in England, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the American expatriate Benjamin West.

Copley’s work, John Greene c. 1769 reveals a 38-year old merchant shown in a setting which Copley used for many of the other businessmen he painted in the 1760s. Despite relatively modest means, Greene was an active philanthropist, and thus Copley depicts this noble character with bright eyes and a genial expression. His erect posture denotes a man of action and decision. Greene poses at a cloth-covered table with a ledger (a business record book) and pewter inkstand before him, quill pen in hand. Greene is a successful merchant, though his success is modest, as he wears neither a wig (the most expensive part of an 18th century gentleman’s costume, and thus an emblem of wealth) nor powder in his hair. Copley also painted Greene’s wife, Catherine. (John Singleton Copley, Mrs. John Greene, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1769) As was often the case in this era, the portraits were most likely conceived as a pair, yet husband and wife are not related by either setting or gesture. Here Copley follows 18th century custom in placing the male with the world of business and the female with the world of nature. (As Mrs. Greene stands before a fictional landscape.)

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Federal Period America’s most famous portrait painter, was born in Rhode Island and studied painting in New England before going to London in 1775. There he became the student of expatriate American painter Benjamin West (President of the Royal Academy, 1792-1805) and was very influenced by the work of English portrait painters Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. After working as a fashionable portrait painter in London and Dublin, Stuart returned to America. His portraits, which number nearly one thousand, brought him lasting fame, in particular, the portraits he completed of George Washington. One of Stuart’s portraits of Washington was used as the portrait on the American dollar bill. In addition, he received commissions from many of America’s first families in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, painting portraits of Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as the British kings George III and George IV.

Stuart’s Portrait of Dr. Walter Landor, c. 1780 is the painting of a well-established physician from Warwick, England painted by Stuart when he was roughly a 25-year old student, working in England to ‘polish his style.’ When he painted this image, he was already making his reputation as a portraitist with a lively style, with a flair for contrasting colors and textures, yet Stuart’s style reveals little of the sitter’s personality, instead focusing almost entirely on his face. Stuart paints Landor’s fleshy face as a rounded mass against a flat, sketchy background. The bone structure beneath the skin is not clearly defined. Stuart has captured the glint in Landor’s pale blue eyes and the shine of the gold braid on his fine blue jacket, yet there is no reference to his profession, property, family or personal history. Stuart’s work echoes the style of British painters of the time and is highly reflective of his training in England.

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John Singleton Copley, John Greene, circa 1769
John Singleton Copley, John Greene, c.1769
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Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, circa 1780

Gilbert Stuart, Dr. Walter Landor, c. 1780
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