Art / essay

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

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Oil on Canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, James McNeil Whistler, 1871.

We call it Whistler’s mother because, indeed, it is. One might call this America’s “Mona Lisa” even though it was produced in France. Yet the unconfused horizontals and verticals in such a minimal design appeals to the puritan and republican virtues of the American public.

Art historians always refer to Whistler as a bon vivant and a bohemian spirit. However, Americans recognize something else in the character of a Whistler. The same feeling arises when speaking of Samuel Clemens or even going all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, as especially examined in his famous autobiography. Americans always liked the progress of civilization, in particular as in science or industry. The exceptional response to the impressionist works brought to America by Paul Durand-Ruel tells a significant tale of Americans’ boldness toward modernity and the future. However, a practical and realistic streak colored most of what came first at this time. Things could be taken too far!

Portrait of Mrs. V (Mrs. Herman Duryea), Oil on Canvas , John White Alexander, 1900.

John White Alexander (1856–1915) was an incredibly skilled artist who was always looking for uniqueness in his portraits. He preferred to introduce a curvilinear effect or an unusual perspective to his portraits.

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery, John White Alexander, 1912 or 13.

Often, however, he would lay down the paint quickly with bravura brush strokes in a manner we often associate with John Singer Sargent, the backgrounds consisting of gradients of neutral colors.

Women in a Red Dress, Oil on Canvas, John White Alexander, 1900.

He was a rather adept painter and, as was the case for so many in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he started as an illustrator. In fact, some of my favorite painters came from such beginnings, if not staying entrenched in the profession, Pyle, NC Wyeth, to name a couple.

Nevertheless, Alexander was a very refined painter as well. His portraits could include finely crafted, rich details.

An Idle Moment, Oil on Canvas, ARC, John White Alexander, 1885.

A name, of which you may be unfamiliar, is not particularly known among the various art students throughout the country. He is an extremely interesting painter, Thomas LeClear. Here, you see his most famous work.

Interior with Portraits, Oil on Canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Thomas LeClear, 1865.

William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) today is not thought of as a portrait painter but he opened a portrait studio in New York with his brother, Shepard Alonzo Mount (1804–1868). Although I most enjoy his genre paintings, his portraits are notable as well.

Portrait of Laertes Chapin, Oil on Canvas, High Museum of Art, William Sydney Mount, 1833.

Nevertheless, when thinking of Mount we think of things like this:

Bargaining for a Horse, Oil on Canvas, New York Historical Society, William Sydney Mount, 1835.

This brings us to the great American portrait painter, Charles Loring Elliot (1812–1868) who created an excellent picture of William Sydney Mount.

William Sydney Mount, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Charles Loring Elliot, 1850.

Charles Loring Elliot studied with a couple of interesting American painters, Colonel John Trumbull (familiar for his large paintings in the Capitol Rotunda) and John Quidor. Because of Elliot’s drafting ability, Trumbull actually advised him to engage himself as an architect. Elliot created portraits of some very famous American artists such as the writer, Longfellow, and the photographer, Mathew Brady.

Mathew B. Brady, Oil on Canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Charles Loring Elliot, 1857.

Now, we turn to John Trumbull (1756 – 1843), the painter of the Revolution and the creator of some iconic American pictures. He was one of the group of Americans who studied with Benjamin West. Although known for his history paintings, he engaged in numerous portraits.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, Colonel John Trumbull, 1802.

Colonel John Trumbull was a veteran of the American Revolution and is most noted for his four large paintings in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. His particularly well known work reenacts the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Declaration of Independence, Oil on Canvas, Capitol Rotunda, Washington DC, Colonel John Trumbull, 1819.

One other picture most significant in the memory of Americans is his painting of George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. Also, his excellent picture of Alexander Hamilton is well worth noting (not shown).

General George Washington at Trenton, Oil on Canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, Colonel John Trumbull, 1792.

We won’t dwell on John Quidor because he does not fit out the present subject. He created fanciful pictures based upon literary works such as Washington Irving’s stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

The Return of Rip Van Winkle, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, John Quidor, 1849.

However, this brings up John Wesley Jarvis (1780 – 1839) who apprenticed Quidor and whom Quidor successfully sued for breach of contract. He was primarily a painter in the early days of the new republic and painted some famous people such as John C. Calhoun and the eventual president, Andrew Jackson. He was a sought after portraitist but ended sadly after suffering a crippling stroke that saw him plunged into poverty, and cared for by his sister until his death.

Philip Hone (Mayor of New York), Oil on Panel, DeYoung Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, John Wesley Jarvis, 1809.

That’s all for now. Part III will be in the future. For those unfamiliar with American art, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, it must seem strange to realize the extent of the profession during this period. Believe me, this subject still has a long way to go.

A Quick Portrait in Watercolor.
A Quick Self-Portrait in Watercolor.

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