American portraiture/American identity : transformations in American art, 1730-1860

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Matthew Robert Blaylock (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
Jessica Swigger

Abstract: Between the Colonial period and the Early Republic, American portraiture changed in style and in subject matter. By the early parts of the nineteenth century, a unique, and quintessentially American style emerged, a phenomenon which scholars have not yet adequately explained. The development of a unique American identity and the emergence of a middle class in Nineteenth Century society explains why artists broke from British traditions. Middle class Americans demanded to be part of a material culture previously restricted to the upper-classes by reinterpreting art to fit into their expanding but still limited budgets. This project argues that as identities of art patrons changed, artists amended their styles in the hopes of realizing the greatest profits as customer demand was the greatest force in setting American artistic styles. American primitive or folk portraits can be viewed as the sister of Colonial and Revolutionary portraiture. Colonial and Revolutionary art adhered to British cultural norms because colonials desired to purchase portraiture that mirrored the styles that their contemporaries in England were purchasing; portraiture was a signifier of one‘s high social position. These consumption patterns defined American elite art well into the beginning of the New Republic. A British cultural identity was so ingrained in the upper class that despite different political views, loyalists and patriots both expected fine art to maintain British qualities even after the Revolution. What is unique to Colonial but more directly Revolutionary and Early Republic portraiture is that despite being executed with classical British styles, tensions of divided loyalties were indirectly evident. These tensions hinted at the changes that would shape American art as the bonds that connected Americans to British culture were challenged during the first generation of the New Republic in both academic and primitive painting. This period ushered in a new artistic genre with the emergence of a middle class, folk portraiture as an American identity influenced patrons, clients, and artists alike. A study of the professional lives of Benjamin West (1738-1820), John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), Joseph Wright (1756-1793), Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), and Samuel F.B Morse (1791-1872) explicates the complexity of Colonial, Revolutionary and Early Republic portraiture. Each artist, despite personal feelings, worked during a period when classical British styles reflected the inheritance of British culture, comprising a tradition in art much more British than American. In the Nineteenth Century, American portrait artists began to sever cultural ties with England. These artists worked during a period when ideas of nationalism and American identity were hotly contested. A clearly American spirit manifested itself in portraiture with inventive styles and an appeal to all classes to purchase portraits. Artists amended their styles to be more financially affordable to more levels of classes by painting faster with less detail. Obviously, something in the American white, middle-class changed in the Nineteenth Century resulting in the first independent American artistic genre. This project examines and explains this process. An expanding middle class, the capitalist economy, and the construction of American identity changed American portraiture. Three artists of the period demonstrate the emergence of this distinct American genre including Ammi Phillips (1788-1863), William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), and Joseph Whiting Stock (1815-1855).

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2011
Portrait painting, American -- 18th century -- History
Portrait painting, American -- 19th century -- History
Influence (Literary, artistic, etc.)

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