John Wollaston, active between 1742 and 1775, was born in London, the son of portrait painter John Wollaston (c. 1672-1749). His first firmly documented portrait was of evangelist George Whitefield (1742, engraved by John Faber). Part of his training was with "a noted drapery painter in London," according to Charles Willson Peale (letter to Rembrandt Peale, 28 October 1812). This was undoubtedly Joseph van Aken (c. 1699-1749), who completed the draperies for portraits by several London portrait painters, including Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay. Wollaston's work often imitates theirs.
In 1749 Wollaston went to New York City, where he introduced London's fashionable styles in portraiture to American patrons.
Wollaston remained in the colonies for eighteen years. His style of portraiture featured rich fabrics, graceful poses, and smiling faces with upturned lips and oval eyes. He painted almost fifty New York portraits of merchants and landowners, and the images are very similar to the work of English painters in pose, attributes, color and the use of landscape backgrounds.
In 1752 Wollaston went south, visiting Philadelphia briefly before arriving in Annapolis by the spring of 1753. In the next year or two he painted about sixty portraits of Maryland sitters. He then moved on to Virginia where between 1755 and 1757 he painted as many portraits, continuing to use compositions that he had learned in London, which by the mid-1750's were less fashionable but still impressive. He returned to Philadelphia by the fall of 1758 and was last recorded there in May 1759. He may have gone to the West Indies before his arrival in Charleston in September 1765, where he painted at least seventeen portraits before returning to London in May 1767. These late works show figures on a smaller scale than the monumental, formal 50-by-40-inch sizes preferred in Maryland and Virginia. Except for a chance encounter in England in 1775 with an acquaintance from the Leeward Islands, nothing is known of Wollaston after 1767.
Wollaston was a competent but not very inventive painter who produced more than two hundred portraits in the colonies, almost as many as John Singleton Copley in the same number of years. He travelled more widely in the colonies than any other painter, satisfying the growing demand for formal portraiture for the new homes of the members of the merchant and landowning classes. His work was praised in poetry published in the Maryland Gazette in 1753 and in The American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies (Philadelphia, Vol. 1, no. 12, September 1758: 607-608). Wollaston's impact on younger artists was especially felt in Philadelphia, where Robert Feke, John Hesselius and West all imitated his technique and compositions in their own work.
[This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Bolton, Theodore, and Harry Lorin Binsse. "Wollaston, An Early American Portrait Manufacturer" The Antiquarian 16 (June 1931): 30-33, 50, 52.
Groce, George C. "John Wollaston (Fl. 1736-1767): A Cosmopolitan Painter in the British Colonies." Art Quarterly 15, no. 2 (Summer 1952): 132-149.
Craven, Wayne. "John Wollaston: His Career in England and New York City." American Art Journal 7 (1975): 19-31.
Weekley, Carolyn. "John Wollaston, Portrait Painter: His Career in Virginia, 1754-1758." M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1976.
Saunders and Miles 1987, 176-182.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 351-352.