American art: The Colonial Period

In the 17th cent. the North American colonies enjoyed neither the wealth nor the leisure to cultivate the fine arts extensively. Colonial artisans working in pewter, silver, glass, or textiles closely followed European models. The 17th-century limners, generally unknown by name, turned out naive but often charming portraits in the Elizabethan style, the Dutch baroque style, or the English baroque court style, depending upon the European background of both artist and patron.

The portrait painters alternated limning with coach and sign painting or other types of craftsmanship, and even in the 18th cent. it was seldom possible to earn a living by working at painting alone. Even the renowned silversmith Paul Revere also turned his talents to commercial engraving and the manufacture of false teeth. The crafts in general followed English, Dutch, and Bavarian models, although in furniture some variations appeared in the work of talented artisans such as Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe.

In the first half of the 18th cent. a growing demand for portrait painting attracted such artists as John Smibert, Peter Pelham, and Joseph Blackburn from England, Gustavus Hesselius from Sweden, Jeremiah Theus from Switzerland, and Pieter Vanderlyn from Holland. Joseph Badger, Robert Feke, Ralph Earle, John Trumbull, and Charles Willson Peale did not depart widely from the tradition of 18th-century English portraiture, but despite some provincial awkwardness, their work is often more vigorous. In the early work of John Singleton Copley this vigor is combined with a great native talent.

Another 18th-century American painter, Benjamin West, set up shop in London and became painter to the king and president of the Royal Academy. Although his training and practice were European, his studio became a mecca for American painters who for half a century came to study under him. His teaching of historical painting did not stand them in good stead on their return to America, where there was little demand for such work. Gilbert Stuart, however, emerged from his tutelage a superb portrait painter and, after gaining success in England, returned to America, where he executed a long series of famous and charming portraits and set a standard rarely surpassed in the United States.

Of all the arts, sculpture was probably the least cultivated in the colonies. Apart from the anonymous carvers of tombstones and ships' figureheads, William Rush is almost the only known native sculptor to have practiced in pre-Revolutionary and early Federalist times.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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