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10.2: Portraits (18th Century)

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  • Painting in the 18th century was divided by the Atlantic Ocean, classical English painting versus the self-taught, pioneering painting in the New World. Art styles imported into the New World came from Europe, an extension of the center of European art from Paris. Portraits over the centuries have predominately comprised painting of kings, queens, statesmen, or religious deities, the memorialization of the rich and powerful. However, in the New World, portraits were created by the people, the ordinary settlers and citizens of the developing countries. Portraits began to make a move from a false pretense to almost exact likeness in the 1730s, frequently focused on accurate historical renditions. In addition to individual portraits, family portraits became popular, and the posed genre of scenes in middle-class family homes became pictorial narratives.

    After declaring their independence from England, the United States looked-for a new identity and history, a capacity for visual communication aimed at all citizens. The colony painters were frequently self-taught and imitated English art. An essential element in the portrait, in addition to the details of clothing, was to paint perfect skin tones. The artist generally applied a base for the skin of layers of multiple colors, then using white to lighten the base. Additional darker colors provided the shadows needed for a realistic rendition.

    Reading: How to paint perfect skin tones

    In England, the Royal Academy of Art, founded on the principals of promoting the creation, visual art through exhibits, education, and appreciation of art, was a significant influencer, a power that initially extended to the colonies. The Royal Academy of Art in London had only two female founding members, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), successful painters in England during the second half of the 18th century. Born a few years apart, both women were gifted artists, growing up with a paintbrush in their hands and accomplished painters in their early years.

    Kauffman and Labille-Guiard were known for their genre of allegorical work, attention to detail, and the exquisite painting of fabric. Kauffmann was talented as a child, able to speak several languages, trained as an artist by her father, and studying opera. By her early teens, she had to choose between opera and art, quickly selecting art when someone told her the opera was filled with sleazy people. Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (10.1) depicts her conflict, opera in the silky red dress and art in blue, pointing the way forward, Kauffmann herself clad in lacy, virginal white. Family Portrait (10.2) was a familiar setting for the Russian noble family dressed in their causal clothing, each person looking at something different without any concept of interaction.

    Self Portrait
    10.1 Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting
    Family Portrait
    10.2 Family Portrait

    Labille-Guiard was considered a master of miniatures and pastels as well as oils. The Sculptor Augustin Pajou (10.3) is a painting of the sculptor creating himself in clay. Labille-Guiard was a pioneer in women's rights, and although women were not allowed to teach art to There were very few women painters, and Labille-Guiard opened the door of opportunity, establishing a school for women students. Capturing delicate lacework and velvet rendered, so lifelike that the viewer is tempted to reach out and touch the painting Self Portrait with Two Pupils (10.4).

    The Sculptor Augustin Pajou
    10.3 The Sculptor Augustin Pajou

    In the school of the Royal Academy in London, male students had to submit a full-body image while female students could only submit an image of the head. During the 1890s, female students protested female students could paint from almost nude models; however, the male model had to have material "fastened around the loins in order to ensure that the cloth keeps its place." Immigration to the United States and the movement of art to New York inspired British born artists to cross the Atlantic and find a new home. The Pennsylvania Academy was slightly more progressive than European academies and allowed female artists to learn; however, the nude male model still was covered to protect the delicacy of women.

    Self Portrait with Two Pupils
    10.4 Self Portrait with Two Pupils

    John Smybert (1688-1751) and William Berczy (1744-1813) were two of the best-known portrait painters bringing their knowledge and skills to start an art school in the New World. Smybert's painting, Colonel James Otaway (10.5), depicts a setting sun over the hills highly contrasting the man in the black suit of armor. The textual representation of the black armor is softened with a brown shawl tied around his waist. The illusion of the light of the sun provided the contrast to allow the figure to stand out.

    Colonel James Otaway
    10.5 Colonel James Otaway

    Berczy created family portraits similar to genre paintings; however, these portraits were staged to present the composition of The Woolsey Family (10.6) and organized in a hierarchal fashion, the father in a standing patriarchal pose. The rest of the family was seated unless they were very young, and the painted dog in the foreground anchors the image. Painted in the neoclassical style, the cool colors chromatic range dominates the painting.

    The Woolsey Family
    10.6 The Woolsey Family

    One of the greatest 18th century American born painters, was John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), painter of portraits and historical themes. A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (10.7) propelled Copley to fame from his use of the Titian-like delicate painting and colors. The boy in the portrait is his younger brother and is seated at a table playing with a squirrel. Copley masterfully used color to unify the painting, red in the table and drapes, and the skin tones of the boy's face. Copley also created textural images that appear life-like; the squirrel's fur and the polished table.

    A Boy with a Flying Squirrel
    10.7 A Boy with a Flying Squirrel

    The French attempted to seize the island of Jersey, and The Death of Major Pierson (10.8) is a large oil painting depicting the French failure, one of Copley's many historical paintings. He captured in sharp detail the scene when Major Pierson becomes a hero after the battle. The major is in white in the center as the focal point, the numerous British soldiers in their red jackets are a strong contrast to the major and the background and seem to be coming out of the painting, giving it depth. The background is muted and recedes, giving depth to the image.

    The Death of Major Peirson
    10.8 The Death of Major Peirson

    Every American schoolchild would recognize this rendering of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a lightning storm. Benjamin West (1738-1820) produced Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (10.9) when Franklin was in his forties; however, he painted him as an older gentleman, an image more recognizable to American citizens. The scene shows Franklin with the spark of electricity jumping to his knuckle with clouds and angelic assistants making the painting allegorical.

    Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky
    10.9 Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky
    The Treaty of Penn with the Indians
    10.10 The Treaty of Penn with the Indians

    West produced an abundant amount of work, and The Treaty of Penn with the Indians (10.10) depicts William Penn signing a peace treaty in 1683 with the chief of the Lenape Turtle Clan. The painting, commissioned by William Penn's son, is a historic landscape with the intended action happening in the center of the composition. The muted tones of the Europeans are juxtaposed with the colorful colors used for the Native American people and landscape.