Published: November 21, 2000
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – What did Americans look like in the antebellum South? How did they wish to be remembered, and what can their images tell us about their lives?
“,” an exhibition of oil paintings on display at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum provides visitors with an intriguing perspective on portraiture produced in the American South before 1845. More than 20 portraits from the permanent collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and one on loan from a private owner, answer these questions and also help us understand the people depicted both as individuals and as representatives of their society and the region in which they lived. “” will remain on display until September 2002.
The images in the exhibition, with few exceptions, present members of the social elite since portraits such as these generally were commissioned by the subjects themselves and were fairly expensive. One exception is the portrayal of a Caribbean girl of African heritage whose rare skin condition led an English artist to paint her as a matter of scientific interest.
“Artists fully trained in the latest styles and techniques were not widely available in the colonies and the new Republic,” said Barbara Luck, curator of the exhibition and Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture. “Others with less exposure and experience stepped in to meet the demand. The result was a kaleidoscopic range of ways to paint the human face and body.”
Other variances occurred that corresponded to changes in taste over time. The earliest portraits in the exhibition date from approximately 1740 and the latest from around 1845. During that time, clients and artists gradually tended to minimize backgrounds, accessories and costume details and to concentrate instead on subjects’ faces and characters.
Full-scale oil portraits like these were expensive, so few members of the laboring classes appear here. As America’s middle class grew during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, however, tradespeople increasingly found ways and means of having their likenesses painted. An image of carpenter Peter Lenox, done about 1820, exemplifies the realization of widely held socioeconomic aspirations.
Many of the artists influenced (and were influenced by) others, so look for stylistic connections among the works. In the colonies and the new Republic, a scarcity of polished professionals and exemplary artworks proved a handicap to beginning painters eager to master the latest European trends.
Skilled visitors such as John Wollaston were pressed for instruction, and examples of their work were closely observed and widely emulated. Some pupils were lucky enough to study in Europe and, in turn, helped train others, whether they returned to America (like Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart) or remained abroad (like Benjamin West).
Considerable stylistic variety exists among the works as well. The shrewdest and most gifted of America’s early face painters capitalized on individualistic talents to set trends, not follow them. Other important visual distinctions can be traced to grassroots origins.
Opportunists realized that demand exceeded supply, and that their own inexperience and lack of training would not necessarily deter prospective clients. Folk painters’ stylistic idiosyncrasies may have been judged naïve by contemporary European standards. But they were widely accepted in their time, and they often appear vigorous and innovative by today’s aesthetic yardstick.
Still other variances correspond to changes in taste over time. The earliest images shown here date from about 1740, that latest from about 1845. Over that span, artists gradually minimized backgrounds, accessories, and costume details in order to concentrate more attention on the inner character of their subjects as revealed in their faces. Reflecting this trend, bust-length formats increasingly replaced full and three-quarter-length ones.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is supported by the DeWitt Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg and displays the foundation’s collection of English and American decorative arts.
Entered through the reconstructed Public Hospital of 1773, the museum is on Francis Street near Merchants Square in Williamsburg. For information, call 757/220-7724.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm