Art / essay

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

Continuing our examination of portraiture in America we skip over to some well known and much less known American artists. We start with one of my favorites, Thomas Sully.

Thomas Sully was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, UK but spent most of his life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US. His main influence came from the portrait painters of Great Britain, in particular the artist, Thomas Lawrence. Nevertheless, Sully created many portraits that reside in the consciousness of many Americans. Pictures of Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, presidents of the US, and even one of Shakespeare are among the numerous portraits produced by Sully. He studied painting under Gilbert Stuart and, also, Benjamin West, artists mentioned in previous posts.

Yet Sully did not limit his subjects to paintings of individuals but also included history such as his famous The Passage of the Delaware.

The Passage of the Delaware, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Thomas Sully, 1819.

For those that don’t know, George Washington crossed the Delaware River, to the New Jersey side to attack a force of Hessian solders camped at Trenton. Washington routed the Germans and raised the moral of the nation.

Thomas Sully is of such renown in the United States that even a ship was named after him during World War II, the SS Thomas Sully.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Oil on Canvas, West Point Academy, Thomas Sully, 1821.

Mary Anne Heide Norris , Oil on Canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Sully, 1830.

Portrait of Elizabeth McEuen Smith, Oil on Canvas, Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii, Thomas Sully, 1823.

Jared Sparks, Oil on Canvas, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Thomas Sully, 1831.

John Vanderlyn (1775 – 1852) was born and died in Kingston, New York. He studied in Philadelphia in the studio of Gilbert Stuart. As a protege of the infamous Aaron Burr, the former Vice-President of the United States who came into conflict with Alexander Hamilton, he was sent to Paris for five years of study at the at the École des Beaux-Arts. After returning to the US, he stayed in the house of Aaron Burr, who at the time was Vice-President. Returning to Paris in 1803, he soon traveled to England in 1805 and then to Rome. In Rome he created his Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage which, when viewed in Paris, received a gold medal from Napoleon.

Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage, Oil on Canvas, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, John Vanderlyn, 1807.

Vanderlyn was not averse to painting history paintings. However, he also created quite a few portraits, including pictures of Presidents James Monroe, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor. Many governors and other officials sat for Vanderlyn. And for those curious about the appearance of the same portrait of George Washington appearing at the White House as well as in the halls of Congress, one can thank him for that since he created a portrait for Congress based upon Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait.

Portrait of George Washington, Oil on Canvas, The House of Representatives Chamber, United States Capitol, Washington DC, John Vanderlyn, 1834.

James Madison, Oil on Canvas, White House Collection (Blue Room), John Vanderlyn, 1816.

James Madison was the forth president of the United States and the Commander in Chief during the War of 1812.

Another picture that brought him fame while he was in Europe is his Ariadne.

Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, Oil on Canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, John Vanderlyn, 1812.

Washington Allston (1779 – 1843) is another of the American painters of the early republic. Mostly known for romantic landscapes, he did produce a few notable portraits. He was born near Georgetown, South Carolina and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools in London while Benjamin West was president of the institution. One of his students was none other than Samuel F. B. Morse which we know from his pictures and from the device, the telegraph.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK, Washington Allston, 1814.

Allston studied and painted quite a lot in Europe, having drawn a bit of revulsion from the emergence of “Jacksonian Democracy” in the political landscape of America. Eventually, he became homesick and settled in Massachusetts.

We mostly know him from scenes such as below:

The Flight of Florimell, Oil on Canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Washington Allston, 1819.

And for something completely different, we have George Catlin. A lawyer who proceeded to document America’s “vanishing race”, set out to record the look and customs of native Americans through painting and books.

Sha-có-pay, The Six, Chief of the Plains Ojibwa, Oil on Canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, George Catlin, 1832.

The charm of Catlin’s pictures come from the colorful and inimitable depictions of people from a different cultural tradition.

Little Bear, Hunkpapa Brave, Oil on Canvas, National Museum of American Art, George Catlin, 1832.

Mó-sho-la-túb-bee, He Who Puts Out and Kills, Chief of the Choctaw Tribe, Smithsonian American Art Museum, George Catlin, 1834.

The title of the above picture of the Chief of the Choctaw certainly holds the contradiction of the Chief holding a peace pipe but, possibly, I have watched one too many Hollywood movies.

We will stop for now, although the considerable number of fine American portraitists generates a fairly lengthy list. Also, I have not included the 20th century. Possibly, I will periodically add to the parts of this series.

Art News
Self-Portrait in Black Leather.

NOTE: I had forgotten to add portrait painter, Jacob Eicholtz. I will correct this soon by adding to this article.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Jacob Eicholtz, 1810.

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