Blog / 2008 / Portraiture for the People

August 4, 2008

If early Americans loved portraiture, it was only natural. After all, the colonists were starting again in the New World, growing a society away from the established pecking order of the monarchy. They were developing a new kind of culture which promised that everyone (sort of) was equal, and they had to have a way to celebrate their individuality and their successes. Portraiture made sense in this context.

These early Americans were following a pattern which had first developed in the only republic at the time, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also called the Dutch Republic). Though there was an aristocracy in the Netherlands of the 16th and 17th centuries, the nobles’ power was not concentrated around a throne and was also checked by the merchant class. The Dutch were closer than any other nation of the time to the democracy that the United States would soon create, and their more egalitarian society was reflected in the popularity of portraiture.

Furthermore, as a predominantly Calvinist people, the Dutch were not interested in commissioning religious art, so, instead of focusing their patronage on adorning cathedrals, they commissioned art for civil buildings as well as the more intimate setting of their own homes. Landscape and genre scenes flourished along with both individual and group portraiture as the Dutch honored the everyman (and woman).

While elsewhere in the Old World painted portraits were reserved for nobles and the wealthier classes, in both the United Provinces and the proto-US everyone was as noble as their work ethic and getting richer every day. In this way, portraiture finally came to be for the people!

The first portraitists in America are often considered folk artists, but that isn’t the full story. Some were craftsmen who knew a thing or two about paint but almost nothing about lifelike representation. These face painters most likely had never seen examples of European portraiture. They were usually sign painters or house decorators who became portraitists to accommodate the growing demand for likenesses.

A second and smaller group of portrait painters working in the colonies were trained guild-level artists who had immigrated to the New World only to find that the market was not yet ripe for their arrival. Though there was a demand for portraits, the overall economy was still developing and these artists had to fill in their meager incomes by ornamenting carriages and furniture.

Freake Limner’s Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary
The Freake Limner’s Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary circa 1674

This painting and many others from this period of American art have a sort of flattened or linear quality to them, very unlike the lively three-dimensional portraits coming out of the Netherlands around the same time. This is a stylistic difference and not necessarily a question of ineptitude on the artist’s part.

The Freake Limner and his more experienced colleagues were referring to the English Elizabethan-Jacobean tradition in portraiture for models of how a painting should look, so they concentrated less on volume and more on details and contours in their work.

Portrait painters in Colonial America—regardless of their skill level—were called “limners.” The term is derived from the old English word for “drawing,” which itself came from the Latin word “illuminare,” meaning “to make bright or light up.”

Today, the word “limner” is more associated with the artists from the Middle Ages who copied texts and embellished them than with portrait painters in Colonial America, but I still like it. I am proud to follow in their footsteps. I like to think that the work I do brightens the world.

References for this article:

  • Dutch Masters: The Age of Rembrandt, lectures by Professor William Kloss (DVDs produced by the Teaching Company, 2006)
  • Wayne Craven’s Colonial American Portraiture: The Economic, Religious, Social, Cultural, Philosophical, Scientific and Aesthetic Foundations (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986)
  • Leonard Everett Fisher’s The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters (Benchmark Books, New York, 1969)
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