The painter Robert Feke was born c. 1707, the second son of Robert Feke, an Oyster Bay, New York Baptist minister and blacksmith. His birth and death dates have never been determined, but are deduced from references to him and his family in contemporary documents. Feke worked as a surveyor in Oyster Bay from 1725 to 1730. It is believed that he learned the techniques of painting in the 1730's in New York City. His earliest documented portrait is the ambitious group of The Isaac Royall Family (1741; Harvard University Law School), which may have been painted in Rhode Island. The following year Feke married Eleanor Cozzens, daughter of Newport's most prominent tailor, Leonard Cozzens. He settled in Newport, where he painted portraits for the next four years. Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Annapolis visited his studio in 1744 and described Feke as "the most extraordinary genius I ever knew, for he does pictures tollerably well by the force of genius, having never had any teaching." He wrote that Feke was a man with "exactly the phizz of a painter, having a long pale face, sharp nose, large eyes with which he looked upon you stedfastly, long curled black hair, a delicate white hand, and long fingers." This description closely matches the image in the self-portrait that Feke painted at about this time (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Feke went to Philadelphia in 1746 to paint portraits, probably at the suggestion of John Wallace, who had moved there from Newport. He made a similar painting trip from Newport to Boston in 1748, where he painted some of his best known work, including portraits of members of the Bowdoin family and a full-length of Samuel Waldo (Bowdoin College). His work rapidly became more accomplished, his steady improvement particularly noticeable in his decorative renderings of the fabrics of his sitters' clothes. On a second trip to Philadelphia in 1749-1750 Feke had a number of commissions for portraits from members of the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly that was established by Wallace and others the previous year. Feke's promising career ended abruptly at about this time. The last record of the artist is his attendance at his brother-in-law's wedding in Newport on 26 August 1751. Although he may have gone to Barbardos, where members of the Feke family lived, no record of his activity or death there has been found. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Foote, Henry Wilder. Robert Feke, Colonial Portrait Painter. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1930.
Hamilton, Alexander. Gentleman's Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 1744. Edited by Carl Bridenbaugh. Chapel Hil, 1948: 102.
Mooz, Robert Peter. "The Art of Robert Feke" (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1970).
Mooz, Robert Peter. "Robert Feke: The Philadelphia Story." In American Painting to 1776: A Reappraisal, edited by Ian M. G. Quimby, 180-216. Charlottesville, 1971.
Saunders and Miles 1987, 165-169.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 101-102.