Published: September 19, 2006
John Brewster Jr (1766–1854) was a deaf portrait painter who created hauntingly beautiful images of American people during the formative period of the nation. This is the first major exhibition in more than 40 years to highlight Brewster’s life and work. On view at the American Folk Art Museum October 4–January 7, this traveling exhibition, “Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr,” was organized by the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.
The presentation of approximately 50 portraits includes six artworks that have been added only for the New York City venue. Selected by senior curator Stacy C. Hollander and drawn from public and private collections, these five paintings and a needlework have rarely been on public view.
Brewster helped create a style of American portraiture that came to dominate rural New England. His life and artistic career were a complex intersection of four worlds and the portraits are considered within the context of these milieus. Brewster descended from one of New England’s oldest Puritan families; he traveled easily among the Federalist elite families whose portraits he painted; he had exposure to a fledgling deaf community; and he knew and exchanged influences with the New England portrait painters of his time.
Brewster adopted the approach of full- or life-size views of sitters in opulent or classical settings with rich colors and an exploration of detail in the facial features and clothing. He simplified the settings, however, and introduced broad flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features. As a deaf artist, eye contact between Brewster and his subject was especially important and became a moment of engagement and communication. The result was a penetrating grasp of the sitter’s personality that came through in his portraits.
Brewster’s early works resembled Earl’s in scale, composition, costume and setting, as in the family portrait of Brewster’s physician father and stepmother, Dr John Brewster and Ruth Avery Brewster, that illustrate elements of the “English grand manner”: the interior room with its draperies and view to the outside through the window and Dr Brewster actively writing at his desk. These attributes ably communicated the sitter’s prosperity, propriety and education.
In 1795 Brewster moved to Buxton, Maine, with his younger brother, Dr Royal Brewster, and painted families in the Portland area, developing a mature, distinctive portrait style. His artistic network flourished in the early 1800s with several important commissions from wealthy Maine and Massachusetts families, notably the Cuttses and Princes.
Included in the exhibition is Sarah Prince, one of the new additions on loan from a private collection. The lovely 16-year-old is portrayed seated at her pianoforte holding a hand-penned copy of a romantic ballad, “The Silver Moon.” Wearing a simple white dress that stands out against a background of monochromatic blocks of color, Sarah Prince sits serenely at her instrument, locking gaze with the viewer.
During this time Brewster achieved great success with full-length portraits of children wearing long white garments and with large expressive eyes that project angelic innocence. This signature group for which Brewster is best known is exemplified by the ethereal portrait of “Francis O. Watts with Bird,” the sturdy “Betsey Avery Brewster,” the artist’s half-sister, and the charming depiction of an unidentified child in “One Shoe Off.”
Brewster also began signing and dating his paintings with greater frequency. He developed another format of intimate half-length compositions such as the portrait of an “Unidentified Boy with Book.” Using a muted palette to highlight flesh tones and excellent draftsmanship, he drew particular attention to the sitter’s eyes.
As did other artists of the period, Brewster may also have augmented his income by drawing needlework patterns on silk. He frequently advertised that he painted miniatures and known examples are similar to the faces in the Norwich, Conn., needlework embroidered by Lucretia Carew. This rare and unusual work will only be on view at the American Folk Art Museum.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53 Street. For information, 212-265-1040 or www.folkartmuseum.org.
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