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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010

Inventing American Stories, 1765–1830

Desiring only bespoke portraits for private display, most colonial art patrons treated painters as mere tradesmen. Their attitude prompted the artist John Singleton Copley to complain (ca. 1767): "Was it not for preserving the resembla[n]ce of perticular persons, painting would not be known in the plac[e]. The people generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade." Many early American artists did indeed focus on individuals, specific locales, and relationships, yet the most clever among them responded to broader narrative agendas, telling stories within the bounds of portraiture. On rare occasions, artists such as John Greenwood experimented with multifigural works, yet these had little impact on the market. Portraiture dominated artistic enterprise into the post-Revolutionary era, but patrons gradually learned to read paintings as more than mere likenesses. Affected by shifts in population, social strata, artistic practices, and clientele, portraitists began to reveal their sitters' desired social positions and to delight them with more elaborate compositions. Gradually, innovative painters such as John Lewis Krimmel, who knew European art firsthand, were able to encourage appreciation for a new sort of pictorial storytelling that found receptive patrons at public exhibitions.