Nothing is known about English portrait painter Joseph Blackburn prior to his presence on Bermuda in 1752. During an extended stay on the island he painted about twenty-five portraits, including those of members of the Jones, Tucker and Harvey families. His compositions show that he was familiar with the work of the leading London portrait painters of the 1740's, including Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay. His rather dry, precise technique suggests a provincial English training. After about a year, Blackburn went from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island, where he painted several members of the Cheseborough family. He also painted Mr. and Mrs. John Brown (private collection), whose son-in-law Thomas Vernon introduced Blackburn to James Boutineau of Boston, describing him in his letter of November 25, 1754 as "late from the Island of Bermuda a Limner by profession & is allow'd to excell in that science, has now spent some months in this place, & behav'd in all respects as becomes a Gentleman, being possess'd with the agreeable qualities of great modesty, good sence & genteel behaviour."
Blackburn's graceful poses, his precise treatment of lace and other clothing details, and his softly colored landscape settings won him numerous commissions in the Boston area during the next five years. He repeated popular English poses: merchants at their desks, military men in uniform, public officials in their robes of office; women as shepherdesses or in dresses with low-cut bodices, decorated with lace, ribbon, jewels and flowing scarves. He apparently made contact with his sitters by personal recommendation; no newspaper advertisements have been found.
In 1759-61 Blackburn worked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he painted several portraits for the Wentworths, as well as members of the Warner family. Portraits of Bostonians dated 1760, and a newspaper notice in 1761 regarding an unclaimed letter, suggest that he went back and forth between the two cities. He may also have returned to Rhode Island: one portrait of a member of the Babcock family of Westerly is dated 1761.
Blackburn returned to England by January 1764 and painted portraits in southwestern English counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, as well as in Dublin. His last known portrait is of Hugh Jones, agent to the Morgan family of Tregdegar Park, Newport, Monmouthshire (1777; Worcester Art Museum, Mass.). Blackburn is particularly important in the history of American art for his early influence on John Singleton Copley. About one hundred and fifty portraits are signed by or attributed to him.
[This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Park, Lawrence. Joseph Blackburn: A Colonial Portrait Painter with a descriptive List of his Works. Worcester, 1923.
Morgan, John Hill, and Henry Wilder Foote. An Extension of Lawrence Park's Descriptive List of the Work of Joseph Blackburn. Worcester, 1937.
Baker, C. H. Collins. "Notes on Joseph Blackburn and Nathaniel Dance." Huntington Library Quarterly 9, no. 1 (November 1945): 33-47.
Dresser, Louisa. "The Background of American Colonial Portraiture: Some Pages from a European Notebook." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 76, no. 2 (1966): 41-53.
Stevens, William B., Jr. "Joseph Blackburn and his Newport Sitters, 1754-1756." Newport History 40, part 3 (Summer, 1967): 95-107.
Saunders and Miles 1987, 192-195.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 10-11.