Art in America’s Colonial and Early National Period 1776-1830
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
In 1781, the Articles of Confederation defined the framework of the first United States government. It took seven years for the central government to get the states to work together, but, in 1788, the states ratified the Constitution and the first president, George Washington, left Mount Vernon in the spring of 1790 to be sworn into office. The people of the United States were proud of their young republic. They enthusiastically displayed symbols of patriotism in their homes and on public buildings—replicas of the nation’s official seal, the bald eagle, and images of famous Americans were in high demand.
The long struggle for independence, isolated the country artistically, as well as commercially, for many years. However, following the end of hostilities with Britain, steady growth began in both sectors. By the time the American Revolution began, many painters had gone abroad in pursuit of professional education and patronage. While some never returned, others, like Charles Wilson Peale who studied in London between 1767 and 1769, returned to Philadelphia and fought in the war. An artist, inventor, scientist, writer, museum founder, and friend of George Washington, Peale accepted a commission in 1779 from the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for a full-length depiction of the general. He later produced many versions of this work, some with the aid of his brother James, a noted portrait miniaturist and still-life painter.
Other painters of this period included John Singleton Copley, an Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England. He is famous for his portrait paintings of wealthy and influential figures in colonial New England, he is especially known for depicting, middle-class subjects. His portraits were innovative in their tendency to depict artifacts relating to these individuals' lives.
In the early years of the American republic, Gilbert Stuart rose to prominence. After a twenty-year career in England and Ireland, he returned to America to paint President Washington, a project that brought him international fame. Neither well-born nor formally educated, Stuart had enormous natural talent and adapted his style to suit his subjects.
Many art experts consider John Trumbull as possibly the greatest painter of American history subjects of this period. He was the son of a Connecticut governor as well as a Harvard graduate. During his brief service as an officer, and General Washington’s aide-de-camp, during the Revolutionary War, he sketched significant people and places of the conflict. After resigning his commission as colonel in 1777, he continued to paint and then went to England. There he studied under renowned history painter Benjamin West and at the Royal Academy of Arts. During travels in London, Paris, and New York City, he painted scenes of the American Revolution and life portraits or sketches of many of the individuals who would appear in them.
After holding diplomatic postings in London from 1794 to 1804, Trumbull remained abroad for another 13 years. In 1817 he returned to America, and his portraits and exhibitions of his earlier canvases led to a commission for four large paintings to be placed in the Capitol Rotunda. Installed in 1826, they are: Declaration of Independence, Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress.
One final artist to mention is John Lewis Krimmel, sometimes called "the American Hogarth" and considered by many to be America's first painter of genre scenes. He was among the first artists in America to portray free blacks, as in Black People's Prayer Meeting (1813) and Black Sawyers Working in front of the Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (ca 1813). Among his often-reproduced paintings are Fourth of July, Center Square (1811/12) and Election Day (1815), both filled with lively characterizations of scores of crowd members.
Born Johann Ludwig Krimmel in the small town of Ebingen in the south German duchy of Württemberg, in 1809 he decided to join his older brother, who had immigrated to Philadelphia. Initially he planned to engage in business with his brother, but soon abandoned this occupation for art. Though he may have had some watercolor lessons in London, Johann Ludwig had no real formal training in art when he reached Philadelphia around November 1, 1809. He began his career by painting portraits, but his attention soon turned to humorous subjects and historical pictures.
At that time Philadelphia was the intellectual and cultural center of the United States. Krimmel soon joined the first known sketch club in America whose members included Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale. His first painting to excite public notice was Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market (1811). The oil depicted a black woman ladling out bowls of her uniquely Philadelphian spicy soup to white customers of various ages and social classes. This genre scene or depiction of contemporary everyday life was followed by many more in his sketchbooks and canvases like Blind Man's Buff (1814), Country Wedding (1820) and Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn (ca. 1811-1813). His depiction of a mother and daughter trying to persuade the drunken father to come home in the painting In an American Inn (1814) has caused historians of the temperance movement to praise this as the first work of an American artist to illustrate alcohol issues.
Profile portraits may have been the preeminent representatives of portrait draftsmanship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their widespread popularity was created and nurtured by the ethos of practical invention, psychological and anatomical theory, classical study, and republican politics that characterized the Enlightenment in Europe and America. They were also much cheaper than painted portraits.
The simplest and least expensive to produce was a silhouette, or "shade," cut out of white paper cemented over a background of black paper or cloth. Previously, artists had based profile portraits on silhouettes drawn by tracing the outline of a sitter's shadow in a large camera obscura, which usually involved a strong light source, a lens to focus the light, and delicate adjustments to insure that the shadow was true and undistorted. In 1802 the British-born Philadelphian, John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1805)5, invented a new kind of copy machine, a pantograph with which a person could produce a miniature copy of his or her profile through direct contact. He called it a physiognotrace, a recently introduced term to describe any device used to copy—specifically, trace—a semblance of a subject's features.
Hawkins sold his invention to Charles Willson Peale, who set it up in his Museum for the amusement of his patrons. The 25-cent admission to the Museum included free use of the physiognotrace, with a charge of only one cent for a small sheet of paper. Scissors were provided so the sitter could cut out the silhouette. Soon Peale turned the concession over to his servant, Moses Williams who made himself available to customers who were not economy-conscious or didn't want the tedious job of cutting out their own profiles. Williams worked the physiognotrace and, by folding a large sheet of paper twice, cut out four copies of a silhouette for a total of six cents for the tracing and cutting. The attraction was so popular that within the first year, as the "rage for profiles" exploded, Williams served more than 8,800 customers, nearly two-thirds of them men.
Charles de Saint-Mémin
Among the earliest artists in the U.S. to create profile portraits was the Boston engraver Nathaniel Hurd, beginning in 1762. The prime exponent of the genre, however, was Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, a French refugee who emigrated to the United States in 1796 and remained until 1814. In New York he formed a partnership with another French émigré and advertised "Physiognotrace likenesses engraved."
Originally, the physiognotrace (in French, physionotrace) was conceived and prototyped about 1784 at Versailles According to a sketch and description by an associate, Edme Quenedey, in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, this physiognotrace resembled a vertical easel about two feet wide and five feet high. A wood panel, on which to mount blank paper, was centered at about the middle third of the easel. The subject, seated behind the panel, facing toward one side or the other, rested his or her head or back against a support to restrain movement. A pantograph, attached vertically to bars at the bottom front of the stand, had an eyepiece at its top with crosshairs through which an operator could trace the outline of the seated subject's head and shoulders. As the artist moved the eyepiece, a pencil at the lower end of the pantograph arm drew the profile on the paper at a 1-to-1 ratio. The operator could also trace the outlines of the profile's superficial features such as the eyes, nose, lips, ears, hair, and clothing.
An experienced operator could complete the trace, Quenedey explained, within two minutes or less. The result was an image of "great truthfulness that . . . astonishes the most skillful artists. They compare these portraits to those which have been cast from life." In the next four or five minutes the operator-artist went over the pencil drawing with black chalk, and finished by filling in the features, textures, shadows, and highlights in full detail, using white chalk for highlights. This resulted in a finished portrait in a total of about six minutes. "It will be easy," wrote Quenedey, "not to confuse these portraits with those called silhouettes, which only offer the exterior contour of the head in place of these which give all the details of the most carefully made portrait." If the customer wished, the key elements of the image could be copied with another pantograph at a reduced scale—typically between 2 and 5 inches high—on a copper plate, for engraving. From the finished engraving 12 prints could be made "without losing anything of the resemblance," for an equivalent of less than $4.00
The full-sized originals ranged in size from 50.8 to 54.6 centimeters (20 to 21½ inches), and from 36.8 to 42.5 centimeters in width (12½ to 16¾ inches). Saint-Mémin employed both etching and engraving in his copperplate work, executing the dark backgrounds with a roulette of his own manufacture. After about a year during which the two turned out some 150 portraits, most of them engravings, the partnership dissolved when Saint-Mémin’s partner returned to France. Saint-Mémin took over the physiognotrace and engaged another émigré as his assistant.
In 1798 Saint-Mémin moved to Philadelphia, where he spent the next four years, making some 270 portraits for a well-to-do clientele. An advertisement announced that "the original portrait, [copper] plate and twelve impressions" cost $25 for gentlemen, $35 for ladies; "the portrait without engraving, may be had for 8 dollars." Beginning in 1803, he enlarged his customer base by spending periods of several months successively in other Eastern cities such as Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and especially Washington, where Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, as well as a number of the Plains Indians who visited the President there between 1804 and 1807, were among his sitters. Altogether, in the years between 1798 and 1814, when he returned to France, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin turned out more than a thousand life-sized chalk drawings, watercolors, and small copperplate portraits that comprise a catalog of many of the most important personages in America during those years.
The popularity of the profile portrait and the silhouette began to diminish around 1806—although Hawkins's physiognotrace remained a popular attraction at Peale's Museum until well after the proprietor's death in 1827. Only thirty years later, photography would add a new dimension to the democratization of portraiture.
As we have seen, paintings of people and historical events dominated American art throughout the 18th and into the 19th Century. Landscape painting began to dominate American art in the early part of the 19th century with idealized images of a vast, unspoiled wilderness that reflected a belief the boundless prospects of our natural environment. Later in the 19th century, as the American frontier pushed further westward, landscape artists chronicled the disappearing wilderness and the expanding presence of modern civilization in paintings that glorified industrial development or served as reminders of the price of progress.
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Architect of the Capitol. (2019, June). John Trumbull. Retrieved from Architect of the Capitol: https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/artists/john-trumbull
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