Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Art and Identity in the British North American Colonies, 1700–1776

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By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, British colonists of all ranks were experiencing a consumer revolution. For the gentry, more substantial houses based on English Georgian architecture rose in the landscape (16.112). Inside colonial households, British imported goods were abundant. These goods—textiles, furniture, and even table forks—made possible the pursuit of an ideal of refinement and an appearance of gentility in the colonists' everyday lives. Exotic beverages such as coffee, tea, and chocolate arrived in seventeenth-century Europe and soon became available in the colonies. The preparation, service, and consumption of tea required an entirely new panoply of goods: the teapot, the sugar bowl, imported cups and saucers, and even a new furniture form—the tea table (25.115.31; 24.109.7).


A new order of skilled artisans and organization in the furniture industry developed in the eighteenth century.

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In the South, sprawling plantation homes were filled with both American-made and imported furniture, decorative arts, and paintings. Charleston, South Carolina, became the most affluent and largest city in the South and the leading port and trading center for the southern colonies. By this time, the population in the Carolinas had topped 100,000. Many French Protestant Huguenots, seeking religious freedom, settled in Charleston (47.103.23), where they built splendid townhouses along the harbor's edge. The wealthy planters and merchants of the South brought over private tutors from Ireland and Scotland to teach their children, or they sent the boys to school in England. Most elite American families owned fine English earthenware and Chinese porcelains; some of these imports were decorated with the American market in mind. Charlestonians constituted the single most numerous group of colonists to embark on the European Grand Tour, essentially a year-long sightseeing and shopping trip through Italy and France (66.88.1).

Portraiture remained the most popular type of painting throughout the colonial period. Likenesses of the southern elite hung in the first-floor parlors and second-floor ballrooms of grand mansions. Jeremiah Theus, born in Switzerland to an artist family, came to America in the 1730s and settled in Charleston to paint portraits of some of South Carolina's wealthiest citizens (1997.340). Henry Benbridge, a talented portraitist in the next generation, also offered miniature versions of his work in watercolor on ivory. Virginian Thomas Jefferson, chief drafter of the Declaration of Independence and soon to be third president, was painted numerous times by Connecticut native John Trumbull (24.19.1).

The northern colonial elite also looked to portraiture as an art form embodying the ambitious ideals and tastes of a wealthy society, in large measure caused by the arrival of Scottish émigré John Smibert, in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1728. An artist of considerable skill and the first academically trained painter to work in the colonies, Smibert executed more than 250 likenesses over the next seventeen years (62.79.1). Soon other European-born portraitists brought their talents to the colonial American marketplace. America's first native-born painter of significant promise was John Singleton Copley, a superb artist of oil paintings, pastels, and portrait miniatures. Although unrivaled in his work, Copley sought education and a more sophisticated audience: in 1774, he left for England (31.109).

Boston grew significantly in population and economic strength. By the 1750s, one-third of all British vessels were made in New England, and American colonists were trading with Europe, Africa, Asia, the West Indies, and South America (40.133.1a,b-.2). A new order of skilled artisans and organization in the furniture industry developed in the eighteenth century. Fine furniture making became a highly respected craft, and cabinetmakers were encouraged to construct elaborate pieces as demand increased for larger and more important pieces to display newly acquired affluence. One of the most talented native-born cabinetmakers was John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island (10.125.83).

Philadelphia, known for its broad streets, large brick and stone houses, and busy docks, was a thriving center of business, enterprise, and trade, and the heart of the fine furniture industry. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia had supplanted Boston as the largest and richest of colonial American cities. Cabinetmakers created masterpieces in the Rococo style based on images in imported London pattern books. Many ambitious and talented London-trained craftsmen emigrated to Philadelphia, where they fulfilled the demand for high-style furniture with locally made versions of English styles (1974.325). Traditional German design motifs still circulated in the Pennsylvania countryside (66.242.1).

Wars between France and England spread to the colonies and disrupted the movement of settlers into new western lands. English victory in 1763 eliminated French control of Canada and territory down the west side of the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The British realized that they needed a permanent garrison in the colonies to protect their interests; to finance this endeavor, they imposed new trade laws and taxes on the colonists. The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts were all enforced between 1764 and 1767. Eager to trade freely as before, the colonists deeply resented the various taxes: if they paid taxes to Britain, they should have representatives in Parliament. The rallying cry "no taxation without representation" mobilized demonstrations, bloodshed, and finally total revolution. The boycott movement, the center of American resistance, gave rise to a mass political movement organized around the disruption of the marketplace and the circulation of commodities. In 1775, the first battles of the Revolutionary War were fought at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.

David Jaffee
Department of History, City College and Graduate Center, CUNY