National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: American Portraits of the Late 1700s and Early 1800s

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Neither art schools nor internationally recognized painters existed in the colonies; so, many early American artists traveled to Europe for training. While abroad, as students at an academy or apprentices to a master, they could learn anatomy and perspective, the proportion of oil to pigment, and the touch of the brush.

London set the standards of taste in America, mainly because more than seventy percent of the colonists were of British ancestry. Several of the paintings on this tour, in fact, were created in England. Even after the United States became a self-governing nation in 1789, painters of the federal period still considered London to be their cultural center.

Most important artists in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America and Britain knew each other, and many of their patrons and sitters were related by blood or marriage. Such an exclusive, close-knit society can be attributed to the sharp divisions between social classes and the low population density. All thirteen colonies totaled only about two and a half million people—fewer than in metropolitan Washington, D.C., today.

Benjamin West as the "Father of American Painting"

With the financial support of several Philadelphia patrons eager to sponsor America's first professionally trained artist, twenty-one-year-old Benjamin West sailed to Europe in 1760. After three years' work in Italy, primarily Rome, West settled in London and soon became Britain's leading painter of scenes from history. In 1792, he was unanimously elected second president of the Royal Academy of art—a position he held, with only one short interruption, until his death twenty-eight years later. Although West never returned to America, he served his homeland well as the most influential teacher in the English-speaking art world.

Among the many colonial painters who studied or lived in West's residences at Covent Garden and near Windsor Castle were Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Ralph Earl, John Trumbull, and Mather Brown. West's pupils of the federal period following the Revolutionary War included Charles Willson Peale's son Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully, and the artists-turned-inventors Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse.

With his considerable tact and perception, West assisted other American painters abroad who were not strictly his protégés, such as John Singleton Copley and Edward Savage. His advice to English artists also was significant; for instance, West urged John Constable to give up portraiture in favor of landscape painting. Canvases by all of these artists are in the Gallery's collection.

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