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3.2: Seventeenth-Century Painting- Puritans in Kid Gloves

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    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    During the colonial period in English America, two kinds of images flourished-natural history drawings and oil paintings of magistrates, ministers, merchants, and members of their families. Both were intended to document. Natural history drawings recorded the look of New World plants and the customs and dress of its native inhabitants. They were often engraved and circulated among Europeans hungry for images of New World flora, fauna, and native life (see Chapter 2). Portraiture recorded faces and identities that were understood to be useful, binding families together by reminding all concerned of their mutual obligations and duties. While various other kinds of oil painting flourished in seventeenth-century England and Holland-still-life, landscape, genre, and religious or history painting-they were virtually unknown in America until after the Revolution. Portraits were important to the colonists; other kinds of oil painting were not.


    The market for portraits proved especially vigorous among the Puritans of Boston. They produced more images of themselves than the wealthy Church of England Virginians or the patroon (land-owning) Dutch New Yorkers. Although popularly associated with austerity and plainness, Puritans, in fact, saw no conflict between piety and worldly success. They viewed themselves as stewards of God's world and sought to increase its bounty in the name of God's glory. They demonstrated an enthusiasm for intricate patterns, bright colors, and richly elaborated surfaces in their furniture, textiles, silver, and portraits.

    The surviving portraits from seventeenth-century Massachusetts often record on the canvas front the sitter's name, age, and the date of the work. Physiognomy, name, age- these are primary ingredients of identity now as then, noted, for instance, on our passports and driver's licenses. They define each of us as individuals. For an observer, the face is the most powerful ingredient in identity; for the sitter, it is consciousness itself. These two-facial uniqueness and consciousness-establish a human actor with individual will and responsibility. Other ingredients of portraits- posture, clothing, accoutrements, address to the viewer-establish a human actor with social roles, inhabiting a material universe.

    Paintings in colonial British America were commissioned-that is, the patron requested the artist to make a portrait, usually of himself, his wife, and / or his children. The patron would negotiate price and size at the outset (portraits were priced by size and number of figures). Half the cost was paid in advance to seal the deal, and the subjects would then sit (or stand) for hours over the course of several days or sometimes weeks, while the artist rendered what he observed and what he knew to be the key ingredients of social identity in his culture. The painting was not finished nor the second half of the price paid until the patron was satisfied. Changes were frequently made-technical analysis, using such tools as X-rays, can reveal these alterations-before the work was declared complete. Mrs. Freake, for instance (see p. 69), was originally painted as a single figure, but the composition was substantially altered to add her child, who was born three years after the portrait was initially completed. The portrait medium-pigments suspended in oil on canvas-readily permits such changes, which are usually invisible to the naked eye. If the patron refused the work, the painting did not survive, as the artist would scrape down the image and reuse the canvas. The survival of these portraits indicates that the patrons approved the artists' efforts.

    Unlike Spanish America, with its virtually all-male cohorts of priests and soldiers, English America was settled by families. Bachelors were viewed with suspicion and remained under the governance of their fathers, masters, or court-appointed guardians until marriage, when they acquired the rights and responsibilities of an adult male . Widowers seldom remained unmarried, and widows, especially those with young sons and property, also promptly remarried. The household was the primary economic as well as social unit, incorporating not only parents and children but also live-in apprentices, indentured servants, and miscellaneous unmarried relatives, all ruled by the male head of household. The household was arranged in a hierarchy of who sat where, who spoke first, and who wore what-a system of dominance and deference incorporated into gestures, postures, clothing, utterances, and material culture. The inheritance of the family name, prerogatives, and goods by the rightful heirs was a paramount concern to the whole community. Portraits illustrate the importance of these concepts of family and heritage among those prosperous few who expected to pass wealth on to successive generations.

    THE FREAKE PORTRAITS. We have more surviving portraits of men than of women from the colonial period because portraits were often commissioned to record male achievements, such as a military victory or an appointment as minister of a church. Many portraits, however, were commissioned in pairs-images of husband and wife at the time of marriage or arrival of first born child- to commemorate the formation of couples and the joining of families that would, through their offspring, continue a lineage.

    Figure 3.13: THE FREAKE-GIBBS PAINTER ,John Freake, Boston, c. 1671- 4. Oil on canvas, 42½ in (107.9 cm) x 36¾ in (93.4 cm). Sarah C. Garver Fund, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
    Figure 3.13: THE FREAKE-GIBBS PAINTER ,John Freake, Boston, c. 1671- 4. Oil on canvas, 42½ in (107.9 cm) x 36¾ in (93.4 cm). Sarah C. Garver Fund, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
    Figure 3.14: THE FREAKE GIBBS PAINTER , Mrs. Freakeand Baby Mary, Boston, c. 1671-4. Oil on canvas, 42½ in (108 cm) x 36¾ in (93.4 cm). Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert W Rice.
    Figure 3.14: THE FREAKE GIBBS PAINTER , Mrs. Freakeand Baby Mary, Boston, c. 1671-4. Oil on canvas, 42½ in (108 cm) x 36¾ in (93.4 cm). Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert W Rice.

    While many of these paired portraits have been separated over the intervening centuries, two portraits executed in Boston by an unknown painter in 1671 (with additions in 1674) of John Freake and his wife, Elizabeth Clarke Freake, and their baby Mary, have remained together (figs. 3.13 and 3.14). Painted on canvases of equal size, the two figures turn toward each other while directing their gazes to the viewer. To a seventeenth-century observer, the outward gaze accomplished two things: it established a bond of intimacy with the viewer (assumed to be a family member or friend), and it reminded the viewer of the Freakes' high social station, their right to command authority with their eyes. For viewers today, their eye contact creates a sense of psychological immediacy, which erases the centuries between our time and theirs.

    These canvases, like almost all colonial portraits, are unsigned. When a name is affixed to the surface or the back of the canvas, it is usually that of the sitter. Such images are about the patron, his spouse, and his progeny not about the artist. The portraitist who executed these two images is known as the Freake-Gibbs painter, identified by his patrons rather than by his own name, which has been lost to history. From the similarity of these works to paintings executed in England a century earlier, we can conclude that the painter was probably trained in an English country town where older styles of painting we call them Tudor or late medieval-persisted into the seventeenth century. First, we observe an evenness in focus-the buttons and laces are as precisely depicted as the facial features. Secondly, the painter is more interested in surface pattern than in giving us an illusion of rounded forms occupying three-dimensional space. We can conclude from these two characteristics-overall precise focus and emphatic surface pattern-that the patrons, the painter, and the culture they inhabited valued surface design over the illusion of pictorial space. That more "Renaissance" way of understanding painting as a window onto a three-dimensional world would come later, when new ideas about the picture plane as a field of illusion-its dramatic light and shadow simulating a reality continuous with our own-took hold. The Puritan emphasis on decorative surfaces would give way over the next half century to a new interest in the body as a three-dimensional object placed within the empirical world.

    Later, as we shall see in the portraits by, for instance, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins, dress will be subordinated visually to face and hands. Costume will appear less sharply focused than the sitter's flesh. As viewers, we are drawn to scrutinize faces: we give them visual priority. Our eyes see only a small area in sharp focus in any given moment, leaving the rest of our visual field more impressionistic, and causing us to "scan" any scene of reasonable size. Puritan portraiture cuts against this tendency of vision by highlighting all parts of the surface equally. The result is that Puritan portraiture can seem old-fashioned to us today.

    John Freake, as suggested by his silky locks, wide lace collar, pliant kid gloves, pendant jewel, and multiplicity of silver buttons, was a successful man: a merchant, brewer, and ship owner. When he died, shortly after these two paintings were completed, an inventory of his belongings described a household rich in imported luxury goods. The portrait of his wife and infant daughter (the artist has written in paint on the surface of the canvas ''Aetatis Suae 6 moth," Latin for "at the age of 6 months" to the left of the child) adds bright primary and vibrating complementary colors to the exuberant material world of these affluent Puritans. Intricate lace on Mrs. Freake's collar and skirt, and delicate needlework on the baby's bonnet, suggest a lively aesthetic sense as well as wealth. But Mrs. Freake and her daughter are also described as good Puritans. Unlike her husband, Mrs. Freake modestly covers her hair, a symbol of faithfulness among married women and chastity among unmarried ones in Puritan culture. Both she and her child wear the petticoats (meaning "small coats" or skirts) that are emblems of their subordination to males. John Freake stands and Mrs. Freake sits stiflly, and little Mary, swaddled straight under her skirts, is held as erect as possible, suggesting her potential for a morally upright life. For the Puritans, the body in its natural state was tied to nature in its fallen mode: unredeemed and dangerous. The curled-up body of an infant, which we today understand as natural, signified for the Puritans a failure of discipline. Salvation required that the body be subdued and transformed into the geometry of an orderly, civilized life. Attached to the back shoulders of Mary's dress are straps by which her mother will help hold her upright as soon as she is strong enough to try to stand and walk. By her posture and her clothing, Mary's body and mind are being formed to be good, and to exhibit her progress for others to see.

    THE MASON CHILDREN. While obedience and deference were omnipresent in Puritan life-both within the household and among heads of household, in carefully calibrated pecking orders-so, too, were reminders from the pulpit that patriarchs must love their wives and children.

    Figure 3.15: THE FREAKE-GIBBS PAINTER (attrib.), The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail, Boston, 1670. Oil on canvas, 39 X 42½ in (99 X rn7.9 cm). Pine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.
    Figure 3.15: THE FREAKE-GIBBS PAINTER (attrib.), The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail, Boston, 1670. Oil on canvas, 39 X 42½ in (99 X rn7.9 cm). Pine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

    The unknown artist, possibly the Freake-Gibbs painter, who depicted the children of Boston baker Arthur Mason and his wife, Joanna Parker Mason, in 1670, has portrayed three siblings whose father extended himself to equip his children according to his social station and to record their well-acculturated forms (fig. 3.15). The leather gloves and silver-headed walking stick mark David, age eight, as dominant, a young male recently 'breeched" -that is, taken out of petticoats, which were commonly worn by children of both sexes, and put into breeches. His sisters, demurely coifed, sport coral beads, vermilion ribbons, snowy aprons, and other accoutrements appropriate to girls. Costume was not just a matter of personal preference and purse in seventeenth-century English America; it was regulated by highly specific sumptuary laws. These laws, enacted in southern as well as northern colonies in the seventeenth century, restricted the use of certain expensive materials and items (silk, certain kinds of lace, certain cuts of coat, boots, and gloves). They had two objectives: to curtail excessive, showy spending at funerals (where the number of gold rings, expensive gloves, and other tokens bestowed by the deceased on the mourning community was proportionate to his or her eminence), and to restrict the uses of the finest wares to those (especially males) at the top of the social hierarchy. Sumptuary laws were designed to make the status of different social classes explicitly visible, so that deference or dominance, especially among males, could be quickly "read." Social gestures were also coded. In this image, Joanna and Abigail, with their closed body posture and overlapping forms, defer to their swaggering brother. Nevertheless, it is Joanna, nervously fingering her apron, who eyes the spectator and convinces us of her distinct personality.

    As in other surviving seventeenth-century paintings, the artist of The Mason Children elaborates the details of dress and the individual facial features of his sitters. His attention is more on surface than on volume. If we had no other evidence, the gilt lettering hovering on the surface of the canvas beside each child's head (''Anno Dom 1670 ... 8 ... 6 .. -4," indicating age at the pictured moment) would make clear that the artist, his patron, and his culture cared less about illusion and more about document, detail, and surface.

    Figure 3.16: CAPTAIN THOMAS SMITH, Self Portrait, Boston, c. 1680. Oil on canvas, 24¾ in (62.9 cm) x 23¾ in (60.4 cm). Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
    Figure 3.16: CAPTAIN THOMAS SMITH, Self Portrait, Boston, c. 1680. Oil on canvas, 24¾ in (62.9 cm) x 23¾ in (60.4 cm). Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.

    CAPTAIN THOMAS SMITH'S SELF-PORTRAIT. The writing in Captain Thomas Smith's Self Portrait, instead of hovering decoratively on the surface, as in The Mason Children and Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, lies on a sheet of painted paper, illusionistically folded over the edge of the table in the lower left (fig. 3.16). We read Smith's letter as ink on paper- that is, as tangibly there with the man in his pictorial space, along with the table. There are other ways in which Smith has introduced three-dimensionality into this image. The subject's face exhibits decisive contrasts between light and shadowed features; his lace neck cloth has such deep folds that its floral pattern is obscured. When we describe the painting, we might use such terms as "the letter lies on a table under a skull behind which the man's hand emerges"; "in the background a fierce naval engagement takes place." These terms, "on a table," "under a skull," 'behind," "in the background," suggest spatial terms and locations that were not applicable in our discussions of the earlier three paintings. What is being introduced here is a conception of pictorial space as continuous with our own inhabited space, a heightened interest in realism, which displaced the late-medieval concern with surface that governed the Freake painter's world. Yet Smith has not fully mastered spatial recession; three ships appear to float above the horizon line established by the fortress.

    Captain Thomas Smith painted this image - a harbinger of the pictorial system that would become dominant in eighteenth-century Britain and British America-some time between 1680, when he first appeared in Boston records, and 1691 when he died there. Given the acceptance of death expressed in the poem under the skull, we can hazard that it was painted about the time he wrote his will in 1688, when he speaks of himself as "sick in body but ... of sound disposing mind." The poem in the painting reads:

    Why why should I the world be minding

    Therein a World of Evils Finding.

    Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres

    thy Joies thy Toies thy wiles thy Warrs

    Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.

    The Eternal! Drawes to him my heart

    By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)

    To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory.

    T. S

    Smith, who appears in records as a ship's captain, died a wealthy man. It is clear that he was an adept painter, aware of London trends. The painting is unusual in other respects. Self-portraits were rare in the colonies, where, generally speaking, no canvas was painted without money changing hands. The brooding introspection we see here is also very unusual. It is more likely to appear in a Puritan diary than in a portrait. Puritan grave markers often used the image of the skull to remind villagers as they passed through the churchyard of the transitory nature of life, the ever-present nature of death, and the final reckoning of one's acts in the afterlife. But this image is different. It portrays Smith as a recognizable individual who lived, observed, and ruminated. He is rendered alongside the skull' that he would soon become.

    However, other elements of the painting work against the emblematic skull and the poem about the fragility of life. The background ships, flying English and Dutch flags, appear to wage war against an Islamic foe, identified by the three crescents on the flag in the lower left. This battle probably took place on the north coast of Africa, where the Muslims who ruled the Barbary States were warring with Protestant navies. Smith's travels throughout the Atlantic world and his participation in this conflict testify to his worldliness, as do his elaborate lace neck cloth and his mastery, as a painter, of three-dimensionality and bodily presence. The poem, on the other hand, pleads for spiritual retreat from the seductions of earthly glory. Smith's self-portrait seems poised between medieval and modern worlds, between self-renunciation and pride in the achievements of the individual man.