American Colonial Art
18th Century Visual Arts in America: History, Portrait Painting, Architecture.

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The Death of General Wolfe (1770)
By Benjamin West.
National Gallery of Art, Ottowa.

For a guide to art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800)


Background History
17th Century Colonial Art
Indigenous and Immigrant Painters
Growth of Colonial Art and Architecture
The New American Republic
Artists of the Republic
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
Portrait Miniatures
Landscape Painting and Other Genres
Architecture: Neoclassicism
Furniture-Making and Other Crafts

Portrait of George Washington
(The "Lansdowne" Portrait, 1796) By
Gilbert Stuart. Pennsylvania Academy.

American Indian Wood Carving
18th Century Tlingit Culture.

Colonial America: Background History

North America, with the temperate climate of the Eastern States so like that of Europe, seemed to the early settlers to be an unspoiled, undeveloped home from home - or even more, a potential new Garden of Eden. It attracted refugees and idealists from the very beginning of colonisation, who had hopes of founding a new life in a new country.

In the New England States first Dutch, then English Protestant zealots attempted to set up a community under religious laws and the government of Puritan pastors, a theocracy. Further south, in Virginia and Carolina the opposite happened. Here it was Cavalier and Royalist refugees who tried to rebuild an aristocratic way of life on estates and plantations, where they imitated the life-style of English country gentlemen. Both Puritans and Cavaliers were to see their ideals founder under the impact of reality, but each form of idealism produced its own types of art, architecture, music and literature. Conflicting idealism also inspired and divided the politics of the new Republic, eventually leading to the War between the States (1861-5) and a subsequent new westward migration. As long as North American culture was centred on the Eastern States, its practitioners would look back to Europe. It was the American West, and contact with both Nature and the inhabitants there, particularly the old Spanish colonists, that finally liberated American art from provinciality. It was as if a wave of energy reached the West Coast, then broke and rolled back to rejuvenate the East.

Colonial versus Native Art
In general, the term "American Colonial art" describes the art and architecture of 17th and 18th century settlers who arrived in America from Europe. It was so Eurocentric that it had no contact with the tribal art traditions of American Indian art, either on the eastern seaboard, the plains or the west coast. For more about art from other British colonies, see: Australian Colonial Painting (1780-1880).


American Colonial Art of the Seventeenth Century

The 17th century saw the first concerted and successful attempts by Europeans to settle in the United States, but the problems and time-consuming difficulties of creating new communities in a new world did not leave the settlers much leisure or energy to devote to the visual arts. However, by the second half of the 17th century a tradition of native American painting was developed by the practical artisan artists who gathered in the metropolitan centres of New York and Boston - a tradition based on portrait art and figurative compositions. The Self-Portrait by Captain Thomas Smith (1690, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) and the Portrait of Margaret Gibbs of (1670, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) show the mixture of styles from Europe that was to be basic to the development of American painting. The pictorial realism of Dutch Baroque art is married to such traditional European conventions as the open window in the corner of the Thomas Smith portrait, adding an idea of space.

Most 17th-century American portraitists relied on engraving European originals to provide them with the basic structural framework for their portraits, as well as ideas of composition, poses, and details of dress. Often only the heads were taken from life. These mainly anonymous artist-copiers did not receive positive encouragement from American puritans as there was, stemming from religious beliefs, a general disapproval of visual images. Religious revelation was to come through the written scriptures, not through allegorical imagery. The only area of visual expression officially excluded from this general prohibition were the gravestone carvings where images of life and death, strength and fortitude were symbolised in statue and relief sculpture.

However there were other outlets for pictorial expression and a vigorous vernacular tradition of decorative art flourished in the form of heraldic devices, inn and shop signs, coach and furniture ornamentation. Not all the American puritans were dour religious zealots dressed in black. The colourful portraits of Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary (c.1674, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) reveals a growing informal worldliness in American portraiture. The portrait was commissioned by her husband John Freake, a Boston attorney, merchant, and shipowner, to demonstrate his social status. With the increasing wealth of the American colonies, American artists by the end of the 17th century began to find more patrons like John Freake. By 1690 Boston was a flourishing port of 7,000 inhabitants and the thriving communities of New York and Philadelphia both numbered 4,000. These metropolitan centres of industry and commerce created the conditions for a more stable system of art patronage.


Indigenous and Immigrant Painters

The second period of American colonial art is characterised by two main features, first the establishment of a native group of artisan artists, and secondly the influence of visiting artists from Europe commissioned by some wealthy Americans to stay with and paint their families. The native American artists, though still copying European models, gave their paintings a strong individualism indicated by severe lines and box-like proportions within the painting. The Portrait of Ebenezer Devotion (1770, Lyman Allyn Art Museum) by Winthrop Chandler (1747-1790), used a background of books both to symbolise learning and to provide a strong element of design. These artisan artists advertised a variety of services for the community - glass-painting, gilding, as well as portraiture. They occupy a middle group between fine and applied art that has been a strong and characteristic feature of American culture.

The visiting artists from Europe included the pastelist, Henrietta Johnston (Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston) (c.1674–1729), a French Huguenot who produced a large number of delicate, tinted oval portraits. Painting in the manner of Sir Godfrey Kneller, she painted numerous portraits of Huguenot families including the Bacots, Prioleaus and du Boses - see her works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York State Museum, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and the Greenville County Museum of Art.

Other immigrant painters featured the Swedish-born painter Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755) who settled in Philadelphia in 1712, and Charles Bridges (c.1672–1747) who arrived in Virginia in 1735 and painted the Byrd family, as well as the Bolling, Blair, Custis, Carter, Grymes, Ludwell, Lee, Moore, Page, Randolph and other southern families, returning to England in 1744. In Charleston, the leading portraitist was the Swiss-born painter Jeremiah Theus (1716-74), whose works include Lt. Col. Barnard Elliott (1740, Gibbes Museum of Art), Elizabeth Prioleau Roupell (1753, High Museum of Art) and the miniature Mrs. Jacob Motte (Rebecca Brewton) (1758, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Another of the most accomplished immigrant painters was the Scottish-American artist John Smibert (or Smybert) (1688-1751), who in 1728 crossed the Atlantic as the Professor of Art and Architecture attached to Bishop Berkeley's visionary project to found a college for the education and conversion of Indians in Bermuda. The project failed but Smibert settled in Boston in 1730 and created a studio full of European paintings which became a mecca for future American artists such as Copley, Charles Peale and Trumbull. The unsuccessful Bermuda project was the origin for Smibert's most famous American painting The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and His Entourage) (1728-39, Yale University Art Gallery), which depicts Berkeley and his associates. This particular oil painting set a style for group portraits in America, combining elements of Baroque painting in direct imitation of Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). In America the social image of the sitter was of prime importance to indicate social status. Most wealthy Americans of this era wanted to add an aristocratic bearing and life style to their merchant or land-owning affluence. In New York a group of artists known as the 'patroon' painters flourished in this genre of status painting between 1715 and 1730. Other important portrait painters of this era were Robert Feke (1706-50), Joseph Badger (1708-65), and John Wollaston (active in America 1749-58).

Growth of Colonial Art and Architecture

The process of colonisation involved several distinctive European cultures. On the far west coast of California was Spanish Roman Catholic Baroque, in Canada and Louisana were the French of Louis XIV and XV, and on the east coast were the Dutch and English.

The latter were to be the strongest and most lasting influence. Two distinct streams of English settlers were seeking their own version of a 'Garden of Eden' in the New World. In New England, along the coast and up the Hudson River Valley the Puritans hoped to build a pious theocratic state free from persecution and based on their own fundamental religious principles. Further south, in Virginia, were settlers expecting to lead the life of rich English gentlemen on plantations and estates, in almost complete opposition to the ideals of their Puritan neighbours. All looked back to the Old World for their architecture and culture. The Puritans built sober Anglo-Dutch houses and churches in neat little towns. The Virginians looked to the court of Charles II and built in the manner of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).

Many of these types of colonial architecture would be revived by designers during the 19th century and the early 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), for instance, designed Bagley House (1894) in a Dutch Colonial Revival style; Moore House I (1895), in a Tudor Revival style; and Charles Roberts House (1896), in a Queen Anne style.

In the South, large plantation homes overflowed with American and European furniture, paintings and items of ceramic art, like fine English earthenware and Chinese porcelain. Charleston in South Carolina, soon became the most prosperous and largest city in the South as well as the foremost port and trading centre for the southern colonies. Numerous French Protestant Huguenot refugees settled in Charleston, building a series of magnificent townhouses along the harbor's edge. The South's wealthy plantation owners and merchants summoned private tutors from Britain to teach their children, or else despatched their sons to schools in England. Amazingly, Charlestonians comprised the single largest group of Americans to take the Grand Tour of Europe - a year-long sightseeing and cultural trip through Renaissance Italy and Bourbon France.

In the north, the city of Boston also expanded in both population and affluence. By about 1755, one in three of all British ships were built in New England, and American colonists were conducting maritime commerce with Africa, Asia, the West Indies, and South America, as well as Europe. Philadelphia was another thriving business centre of the north, and the heart of its fine furniture industry. Indeed, by about 1760, Philadelphia had overtaken Boston to become the richest and biggest of all colonial American cities.

Meanwhile, conflict was approaching. War between England and France spread across the Atlantic to the colonies. Although the English gained control of Canada and much of the eastern United States, they decided to maintain a permanent garrison. To pay for this they imposed a series of taxes during the period 1764-1767, including The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts. This led to a boycott movement, followed by mass political protest, followed by the Revolutionary War of Independence.

The New American Republic

The next generation of American painters coincided with the formation of a Republic, which was politically independent of the British crown. This emerging confidence can be seen in the work of the two major artists of the period, both born in 1738, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. These two artists extended the range of subject matter in American painting to include historical, mythological and landscape subjects as well as the traditional portrait. Copley's aspirations and attitude to the role of the painter in the colonies can be seen in his own remark: "was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons, painting would not be known in the place. The people regard it as no more than any other useful trade ... like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shoemaker, not as one of the most noble arts in the world". Both artists realised their ambitions to raise the status of the artist in America. Benjamin West moved to Europe in 1760, eventually becoming President of the Royal Academy in 1792. Copley remained in America until 1774, becoming the foremost portraitist in New England.

Artists of the Republic

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)

The American painting career of John Singleton Copley, as part of Boston's elite, exhibits two of the fundamental characteristics of American painting in this era: technical virtuosity and the ability to localise and particularise the uplifting sentiments that painters in the 18th century were expected to transmit through their paintings.

In 1748, Copley's mother had married the English-born American limner and mezzotint engraver Peter Pelham (1695-1751) - whose portrait paintings included those of Queen Anne, George I, the Earl of Derby, and Lord Wilmington - and whose Boston workshop rapidly became one of the centres for Bostonian artists. Through this family connection Copley was trained in the figurative realism of the colonial limners but he increasingly infused his portraits with patriotic sentiments as in his famous Portrait of Paul Revere (1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Paul Revere, a Republican patriot, had led the protest against the Stamp Act of 1765. He was a highly skilled silversmith and the portrait conveys the informal democratic dignity of the shirt-sleeved craftsman, teapot in hand, an image that relates to the rise of national pride in the increasingly assertive American colonies.

Copley, however, did not distinguish between the politics of his sitters and he painted many Bostonians who remained loyal to the Crown. He was also a master of pastel portraiture, having become aware of the advances made by the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard, and completed a number of pastel drawings marked by their accurate rendering of the sitter's fashion, as well as their depiction of their character. Such was the esteem in which Copley's pastel portraits were held, that the New York Metropolitan Museum purchased his portrait of Mrs. Edward Green well in advance of the more famous oil portraits for which he is more widely known.

On moving to England in 1774, Copley added history painting to his repertoire, depicting a number of heroic incidents from British history, including The Death of Chatha in the House of Lords (1779), The Death of Major Pearson (in a skirmish with the French in the Channel Islands) (1782), and The Siege of Gibraltar (1791). This combination of the selection of an incident from contemporary history married to a style of meticulous realism was novel. Copley always preferred to paint contemporary historical subjects, saying, "I have as much as possible employed myself in events that have happened in my own life time". His major painting of 1778, Watson and the Shark (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), exhibits many of these features. Watson, a friend of Copley, told him of a youthful encounter with a shark in Havana Harbour. The linear flow of waves, ships, and the naked Watson is opposed by the strong vertical of the sailor attempting to spear the shark. Copley dramatises a real-life incident of natural hazard allowing the subject matter to determine the style: the waterfront characters are not given mythological significance in the Neoclassical manner.

Benjamin West (1738-1820)

From his position as a major figure in both British and American painting, Benjamin West became a focal point for American artists who increasingly came to Europe to make their grand European tours. West was more consciously heroic in his style, but like Copley firmly believed in choosing subject matter from contemporary events, for his history painting. West's composition Treaty of William Penn with the Indians (1771, Pennsylvania State Museum) shows the grave Quakers making a solemn treaty with the native chieftains, investing the scene with all the stoic dignity of an event from Greek or Roman political history. In 1772 West became George III's Royal Painter of history pieces. West's subjects ranged across a wide field, Biblical, Shakespearean, historical and Classical themes, and he actively encouraged American painters to extend their range.

One of his pupils was John Trumbull (1736-1843), who in 1786 embarked on a series of paintings which would commemorate the events that led to the independence of the American colonies. These include The Battle of Bunker's Hill (1784, Yale University Art Gallery) and General George Washington before the Battle of Trenton (1792, Yale University Art Gallery), paintings which develop the tradition of history painting established by West and Copley, adding Trumbull's own qualities of flowing movement and softened outlines. A reproduction of his painting Declaration of Independence (1818, United States Capitol Rotunda, Washington DC) appeared on the reverse of the United States two-dollar bill. Trumbull also painted numerous portraits, including those of General Washington (1790) and George Clinton (1791), as well as Alexander Hamilton (1805). Other followers of West concentrated on particular types of picture, such as still lifes and genre painting.

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

Gilbert Stuart was another eminent portrait painter of the time, responsible for the portraits of over 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents of the United States. Among his finest works is the unfinished portrait of George Washington, known as "The Athenaeum", which still appears on the United States one dollar bill; the "Lansdowne Portrait" (1796), and The Skater (1782, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827) is also famous for his portraits of leading figures of the American Revolution. His most celebrated work is George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1781, Yale University Art Gallery) - which sold in Jan 2005 for $21.3 million dollars: then a record for an American portrait. He also painted portraits of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as well as more than 60 portraits of George Washington. In addition, he composed eyewitness paintings of American scientific wonders. Exhuming the First American Mastodon (1806-8, Peale Museum, Baltimore) was exhibited in Peale's famous museum of natural wonders in Philadelphia.

Portrait Miniatures

Miniature Painting (Portrait Miniatures) in America, derived from the works of the German expatriate Hans Holbein (1497-1543) and Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1616), with due thanks to the revolutionary watercolour innovations of the Venetian miniaturist, Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757). In Boston, Copley was the first to master this specialist genre (Portrait of Jeremiah Lee, 1769); while in Philadelphia, leading miniaturists included Charles Wilson Peale and James Peale (1749-1831) (also known for his still lifes). In Charleston, the top man was the Philadephian Henry Benbridge (1743-1812), noted for his full-length works like Dr. Jonathan Potts (1776, Art Institute of Chicago) as well as his watercolour miniatures on ivory; while in New York, it was the goldsmith and miniaturist John Ramage (1748-1802) - who produced small-scale pictures of numerous politicians including the first American president, George Washington.

Landscape Painting and Othe Genres

Figure painting and portraiture in oils and pastels was the most important 18th-century forms of draftsmanship practiced in the cities of colonial America. But in the countryside other forms were also seen, including pen-and-ink drawings, often by anonymous artists but occasionally by known figures, such as Johann Heinrich Otto (c.1773-1800), creator of the Fraktur Motifs, noted for its bright swirling patterns of flowers, crowns, peacocks and parrots. Landscape painting, almost unheard of before 1800, arrived in the form of topographical watercolour painting. The main exponents in New York City was the Scottish-born painter Alexander Robertson (1772–1841) and his brother Archibald Robertson (1765–1835), founders of the city's first art school, the Columbia Academy.

Architecture: Neoclassicism

Republicans in Europe looked back nostalgically to the Roman Republic as an egalitarian ideal; a myth largely of their own making. Neoclassical Architecture was the recognisable symbol of the Republican spirit, not the theatrically gilt and mirrored Baroque architecture that Renaissance Classical had become, but a chaste, pure and clearly defined Classical style, as idealistic and bearing as little relation to its origins as the politics it symbolised. The white or cream painted neo-Palladian house was the American ideal. The defeat of the British was also a defeat for the old Puritan ascendancy, although not seen as such at the time, and the early days of the Republic saw its political domination by Southern landowners rather than Northern merchants. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), legislator, economist, educationalist and Third President of the United States, was a professional and influential architect. The son of a surveyor, he built his mansion home, Monticello, in 1769 on his inherited estate. He also designed the Virginian State Capitol Building, the Washington Capitol, burnt in 1817, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, the prototypical American campus. Influenced by Andrea Palladio (1508-80), Jefferson found in Roman Classicism authority for social and architectural theories suitable for a new Republic. In addition to Jefferson, colonial American architects who used neoclassical designs included Federal Style designers William Thornton (1759-1828) and Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), who designed most of the US Capitol Building (1792-1827), as well as the Greek Revival architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), who was also responsible for the Baltimore Basilica (1806–1821). For more details, see: American Architecture (1600-present).

Furniture-Making and Other Crafts

During the 18th century, the demand for fine furniture to decorate plantation mansions and respectable town houses had created a new class of artisans and master craftsmen skilled in wood-carving and carpentry. One of the top native-born cabinetmakers was John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island (1733–1809). He was born in Newport, Rhode Island, second only to Boston among the cities of New England, whose prosperous furniture industry was controlled by two intermarried Quaker families, the Townsends and the Goddards. Throughout the industrious north, in Newport, Boston and Philadelphia, Philadelphia, artisan Cabinetmakers - many of whom were London-trained emigrants - created masterpieces in the Rococo style styled on images contained in imported pattern books. Meanwhile, in the countryside, traditional German designs remained popular.

Other popular crafts in rural areas of the colonies included: embroidery, basket-weaving, metalwork, jewellery and (in the northeast seaports) whalebone and ivory carving, as well as different types of folk art such as doll-making, quilt-making and blanket-making. However, all these crafts fall outside the general category of art, although they served a vital role in colonial culture.


Examples of American Colonial art can be seen in many of the best art museums and heritage centres across the United States, including the following venues:

- American Folk Art Museum (NYC)
- Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
- Boston Museum of Fine Arts
- Denver Art Museum, Colorado
- Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
- Gibbes Museum of Art
- Greenville County Museum of Art
- Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth)
- Lyman Allyn Art Museum
- Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), Minnesota
- Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
- National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC
- New York State Museum
- Peale Museum, Baltimore
- Pennsylvania State Museum
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
- Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
- Yale University Art Gallery

Legacy of Colonial Art

American 19th century artists built upon the traditions and standards set by Copley, West and Gilbert - not just in portraiture and historical works but also in the newly popular genre of landscape. Thus, as Colonial art gave way to the more assured traditions of the 19th century, the eastern cities began to experience the sights of the American wilderness through the eyes of the Missouri frontier painter George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879); the Hudson River painters Thomas Cole (1801-48) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900); and the leader of the Rocky Mountain school, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). They experienced the Cowboy West through the paintings of Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and the sculpture of James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) - see, for instance, his masterpiece The End of the Trail (1915, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City). Meanwhile, the genre of American history painting was maintained by the German-American painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-68) who is renowned for his canvas Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

• For a chronological guide to painting in colonial era America and elsewhere, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about neoclassical colonial architecture in the United States, see: Homepage.

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