“A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr,” the first comprehensive exhibition on the important American painter John Brewster Jr (1766–1854), will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art, January 25–March 25.
The exhibition features 50 outstanding paintings illustrating the full range of Brewster’s long and successful career, including many that were painted in Maine. This is the first time in more than 40 years that Brewster’s masterpieces have been presented together.
“The exhibition presents a fascinating glimpse of early America through the eyes of someone who lived in a world of silence. Like all great artists, John Brewster Jr transcended his personal challenges to leave an astonishing legacy,” said Paul D’Ambrosio, chief curator at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., who organized the exhibition.
Brewster was not an artist who incidentally was deaf, but rather a deaf artist, one in a long tradition that owes many of its features and achievements to the fact that deaf people are, as scholars have noted, visual people. The exhibition and companion book provide a major assessment of Brewster’s life and art within his four worlds: his artistic influences, his distinctive painting style and techniques, his elite clientele and the world of the deaf in early America.
One of the best early American portrait painters who painted in a characteristically American style, Brewster was an artist who gave us hauntingly beautiful images of American life during the nation’s formative years. Though his techniques were rooted in European academic art, he moved beyond that rigidity to achieve a directness and intensity of vision that has rarely been equaled. His portraits have been hailed as “masterpieces of American painting” and Brewster himself as “an undisputed master of the genre.”
Born in Hampton, Conn., Brewster studied briefly with Reverend Joseph Steward (1753–1822) and began painting likenesses in the 1790s. He traveled widely in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and eastern New York state in search of portrait commissions. Brewster’s portraits show his ability to produce delicate and sensitive likenesses in full-size or miniature, and in oil on canvas or ivory. He is particularly noted for his portraits of children, who are depicted with an angelic innocence rarely achieved in portrait painting. In 1854, Brewster died at age 88, leaving an invaluable record of his era and a priceless artistic legacy.
The exhibition is accompanied by A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr, written by Dr Harlan Lane of Northeastern University, which is available in the museum store.
Related programming includes “Portraits: Drawing a Likeness” on Saturday, January 20, 10 am to 3 pm. Participants enter the world of John Brewster and learn the tricks of the portrait drawing trade. Bag lunches can be brought or lunch may be purchased in the museum café. Cost is $45 members/$60 nonmembers. Register at www.portlandmuseum.org or call 207-775-6148, extension 3293.
On Sunday, January 28, from 1 to 3 pm in the museum auditorium, Harlan Lane, will present a lecture exploring Brewster’s life, painting and the deaf and hearing worlds he traveled through. Lane, a distinguished university professor at Northeastern University and MacArthur Fellow, is an internationally recognized advocate for the deaf, and the author or editor of nine books on deaf history, language and culture. This lecture will be interpreted into American Sign Language and is free with museum admission.
A gallery talk, “The Worlds of John Brewster Jr,” will be presented on Saturday, February 10, at 2 pm, free with museum admission.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org.