american art

from the colonial period to world war two

colonial portraiture


people, terms, and concepts:  Calvinism, Elizabethan-Jacobean style, Courtly Baroque style, idealization, realism, attributes

The key point of this topic is that a Colonial portrait is not an factual document of what the subject looked like, what they owned, and what their character or personality was; it is a carefully-constructed artifice showing how they wanted to be perceived by their community and after their death. Any analysis of a Colonial portrait should keep in mind both its artificiality and its purpose as a status symbol.  Also, because social values and the symbols used to project them change over time, in order to understand the portraits, we need to understand the context in which they were produced.

colonial values: The colonists who moved to the New World were not the upper classes of Europe, nor (until later) the poor working classes, but the middle classes who sought economic opportunity as well as religious freedom. Although the dominant stereotype of the colonists was the joyless, black-clad Puritan enduring deprivation as the result of harsh conditions and religious zealotry, the surviving portraits, furniture, and household items demonstrate a culture that was very much in favor of acquiring and displaying wealth.  In fact, some of the colonists (such as the Calvinists) believed that hard work and thrift was a moral as well as economic imperative -- so prosperity was actually a sign of morality (and, conversely, that poverty was a sign of moral failing). Thus, ironically, the display of wealth, in daily life and in portraiture, was sanctioned both by the mercantile values of the community and by Calvinist religious values.

styles of Colonial portraiture: The earliest Colonial portraiture is in what is called the Elizabethan-Jacobean style:  the Freake portrait below is a good example. Although it was nearly 100 years out-of-date compared to European styles, the Elizabethan style was adopted by the colonists both because it was associated with Protestantism (as opposed to the sensuous and Catholic-associated courtly Baroque style), and because most colonists came from rural areas of England, where the newer Baroque style was still unknown. Gradually, over the course of the 18th century, the more naturalistic European style came to prevail (we saw an abridged version of this evolution in the artists Kuhn, Smibert, Feke, and Copley). Be able to recognize and describe the formal features of these two styles, and be able to describe how both styles conveyed the wealth and status of their subjects.

symbolism of Colonial portraiture: We did a lengthy analysis of two portraits (the anonymous portrait of Elizabeth Freake and Thomas Smith's self-portrait, below) in which we broke the works down into their elements and discussed how each element contributed to the project of conveying the socio-economic status of the subject. Recall that while both works conveyed status, the Smith turned out to be somewhat less ostentatious than the Freake in its furniture, clothing, and attributes, which fit with the ideas of the poem he wrote about denying earthly pleasures and anticipating death. You will shortly be doing a similar analysis of a portrait in local collections, so be sure you understand and are able to analyze any given work(s) along the lines of the questions below.


Readings:  Craven chs. 3, 5 & 7 and on Paul Staiti, "Character and Class:  The Portraits of John Singleton Copley" (PDF)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (one typewritten page, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11:00 PM with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.

1)  As thoroughly as possible, describe how Copley's Mary and Elizabeth Royall (see below) lends status to its subjects, drawing on Craven's and Staiti's analysis of other works to determine what each of the aspects of the work (attributes, background, setting, pose, etc.) may be saying about the Royall sisters and their family.

2)  Men and women were painted with different types of attributes, settings, and poses in Colonial portraits.  (For example, are men or women more likely to be painted standing?  To be holding fruit?)  Describe some of these differences in relation to the works in Craven and Staiti, and discuss what they reveal about the different gender roles of men and women in Colonial society.

3)  Some of the portraits discussed in Craven and Staiti (and you might find others online) seem to go out of their way to avoid the ostentatious luxury characteristic of the 'mercantile status portraits' we concentrated on.  Why might the subjects have chosen to be depicted in this way?  Discuss a couple of works as examples.

Unknown artist (The Freake Limner), Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, c. 1675

Thomas Smith, Self-Portrait, c. 1690

John Smibert, Dean George Berkeley and His Entourage (The Bermuda Group), 1729

John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, c. 1770

John Singleton Copley, Mary and Elizabeth Royall, 1758