Art / essay

Here’s Looking at You: Portraits in America (Part I)

Due to the overwhelming influence of academia and Hollywood, in particular, most Americans are ignorant of the rich tradition of portraiture before and after the Revolution to the present day. Now, it is entirely possible large numbers of Americans are familiar with Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt. Nevertheless, in America during the 19th century especially, portrait artists were almost as numerous as the landscape painters. For much the same reason as the Dutch Republic, portraits were an important aspect of remembering the important people in one’s life rather than from state influences such as in royal portraits. There were no royal academies and a large growing middle class began to have an appetite for immortalization. Even the invention of the camera did not prevent the explosion of portrait artists. Of course, the reasons for this are a subject for later discussion.

“The featured image is the Self-Portrait of Frank Weston Benson, Oil on Canvas, National Academy of Design, New York City, 1898.”

Portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, Oil on Canvas, White House Collection, Henry Inman 1842.

The only buildings besides residences available for artistic decoration were places such as court houses, legislative chambers, executive offices, and historical monuments. No Versailles exists in America and republican virtues exclude any aggrandizement of inherited power.

The above image by Henry Inman (1801 – 1846) depicts the daughter-in-law of the President of Martin Van Buren. Due to the death of his wife, Angelica Van Buren became the functioning First Lady. Inman has managed a picture with lots of textural details and places the figure strongly connected to a portrait bust of the President created by another American portraitist, Hiram Powers (1805 – 1873).

Portrait Bust of President Martin Van Buren, Marble, White House Collection, Hiram Powers 1836-40.

Hiram Powers was very well known in Europe and America. As a Neo-Classical sculptor, he eventually found a huge following. Starting with the Portrait of Andrew Jackson, another president of the country, his reputation grew until he moved to Florence, Italy where the resources and appetite for sculpture had persisted since the Renaissance. In displaying his The Greek Slave at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Powers garnered great attention from many people. When it toured the United States, more than 100,000 people came to see it.

The Greek Slave. Marble, New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery, Hiram Powers 1851.

Speaking of Martin Van Buren, in another portrait at the White House, hangs one of the president in a pose resembling a famous picture of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828).

Martin Van Buren, Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, George Peter Alexander Healy (1813 – 1894), 1858.

George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gilbert Stuart 1796.

Now, maybe, dear reader, that you have not heard of Henry Inman or George Healy (1813 – 1894). That would not be unexpected. Unfortunately, many students, even art students, receive a Eurocentric art education with a focus on the various movements in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain. When and if there is a discussion of American art, it is always in the context of European movements, with a focus on “primitive” or lesser artists. To have heard about American art from a European art critic or historian would not be at all unusual nor all that desirable.

However, a real experience of American art in the 19th century is one of delight and awe. Moreover, not all accomplished American art, particularly portraiture, is well known in the United States as well as Europe.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Oil on Canvas, White House Collection, Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Rembrandt Peale thoroughly delights me with his portraits. The son of the famous early American painter, Charles Wilson Peale, Rembrandt Peale was a prolific portrait painter who, besides this well known picture of Thomas Jefferson, also produced an excellent one of George Washington. In fact, the whole Peale family were a dynamo of scientific and artistic achievement.

Portrait of Rembrandt Peale, Miniature, Watercolor on Ivory, Yale University Art Gallery, James Peale (Uncle of Rembrandt), 1795.

But, since this article was not designed (purposely) to possess much progressive structure, and having already mentioned a couple of Van Burens, a display of another Van Buren is in order. In this case, it is of an Amelia Van Buren who studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia with the artist, Thomas Eakins (1844 – 1916).

Portrait of Amelia Van Buren, Oil on Canvas, The Phillips Collection, Thomas Eakins, 1891.

This is not the most famous of Thomas Eakins’ work but we see a very refined, skilled work. The formal arrangement of the figure, the textural qualities of the drapery and objects surpass many other artists in rendering a portrait. Now, for the most famous:

The Gross Clinic, Oil on Canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins, 1875.

For a more complete examination of this portrait of Dr. Gross, please see my article on this picture.

Of course, the consummate portrait painter in the 19th century is John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, 1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglass Campbell, in memory of Mrs. Richard E. Danielson, 1998 (1998.365)
Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglass Campbell, in memory of Mrs. Richard E. Danielson, 1998 (1998.365), John Singer Sargent, 1892.

The tour de force brush work of Sargent is legendary. For a detailed description of this picture follow this link.

One of my favorite portrait painters active during the first part of the 19th century is John Neagle (1796 –1865). The picture that first introduced me to this artist is shown below.

Pat Lyon at the Forge, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, John Neagle, (1826-27).

Neagle, a prolific portrait painter and a director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a founder and president of the Artist’s Fund Society of Philadelphia, he was a prolific portraitist. He was close to another one of my favorites during this period of American art, Thomas Sully (1783 – 1872).

Mrs. Robert Gilmor, Jr. (Sarah Reeve Ladson), Oil on canvas, Gibbes Museum of Art, Thomas Sully, 1823.

Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler, Oil on Canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, William Merritt Chase, 1883.

Oh, how I love looking at pictures created by William Merritt Chase (1849 – 1916). His painterly approach and his use of color and light, intrigue and delight me to no end. He began the Chase School which became the famous Parsons School of Design.

I don’t know how far I will go with this look at American portraits. Once one gets into the depth of the subject, the list rapidly rises to overwhelming. So, for Part II, I will begin with the inimitable James McNeil Whistler and who knows where I will end. Then proceeding to the 20th century, the subject explodes. So for now, we will remain with the representational and realistic images of the past, and forgo the faces quashed to the front of the image and distorted beyond recognition.

On to Whistler…

Self-Portrait in Chair, Oil on Canvas, HBosler, 2010.


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