American Masterpieces Before There Was A USA

Long before the 13 British colonies considered separating from the British empire, while pathways were being hewn out in the North American wilderness, the seeds of an independent, uniquely American art had been sown, sprouted, and was well on its way to blooming. By 1776, there had been at least one American master, and several American masterpieces had been produced, but the path into the sunlight was difficult.

Beset by thorns as it was, art in the colonies was constrained by the difficulty of the circumstances in which the people sought to eke out their primary aim of survival. Paintings were of less importance and less sought after than furniture and crafts making. From the very start, the American mind had been preoccupied with the practical and the immediately useful. John Adams, second President of the United States, wrote in 1780: “It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires: the useful, the mechanic arts are those which we have occasion for…” This sentiment was shared by generations of civic leaders before and after him.

Yet, even in the 1670s art on the new continent had begun to emerge, specifically in Boston. The first American painters were portrait painters, who practised their trade in the services of wealthy merchants, ministers and their families. Notable among them, ironically, was an anonymous artist known as the “Freake Limner”, generally thought to be the first significant artist on the continent, who is responsible for approximately ten portraits.

This first generation of artists painted in the late Elizabethan style, which, though too dated for Europe, was executed with enough elegance and delicate likeness, as can be seen in Freake’s painting Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs John Freake) and Baby Mary

In 1729, Englishman John Smibert disembarked a ship and settled in Boston, immediately becoming the preeminent artist of the colonies. Trained in Italy, and having practiced in London, he brought with him an abundance of knowledge and expertise in portrait painting. Perhaps more importantly, he also brought an important collection of copies of old master paintings, plaster casts of sculptures, prints, and art supplies; colours, canvas, and more. His shop became the centre of the infant art industry.

What can be regarded as truly American art was present by 1760, through one individual: John Singleton Copley, America’s first truly great artist. Born and raised in Boston, he learned from and surpassed Smibert’s friend Peter Pelham, whom he lived with in his childhood, and Joseph Blackburn, who trained him in the Baroque formula that was popular in Europe. By 1757, Copley’s expressiveness informed by his direct observation, had started to manifest.

In some of his best-known works, such as Boy with a Squirrel (1765), we see the defining characteristics of Copley’s art: sublime realism, a regal sensibility informed by his rococo roots that, but which is tamed by an American restraint, and a desire to convey not merely form but character. His portraits though sophisticated, were non-decorative.

Copley worked in near complete isolation, using only low-quality copies of master works as reference, which greatly disappointed him. He greatly desired what he saw as the elevated standards of European art. He was also troubled that all that was ever desired of him were portraits. Yet he held some hope for the future of American art, writing to Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard: “America which has been the seat of war and desolation, I would fain hope will one day become the School of fine Arts.”

Eventually, his desire for Europe won out, and in 1774, just two years before the Declaration of independence was signed, he departed American shores for Rome, before settling in London. Copley departed the scene right on the eve of the emergence of the new nation, and the dramatic decline of Boston as an economic, cultural and artistic bastion.


Angry at the modern world for my own lack of taste.

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