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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Late Eighteenth-Century American Drawings

As it was in painting, American draftsmanship before 1800 was dominated by portraiture. Among the earliest examples of the genre were in the medium of pastel, imported into the American colonies as far back as the first decade of the 1700s and best exemplified by the extensive production of one of this country’s first notable female artists, Henrietta Johnston (ca. 1674–1729). A descendant of French Huguenots who lived successively in England and Ireland, Johnston emigrated to Charlestown, South Carolina, where she continued the pastel practice begun in Dublin after the death of her first husband. Her small, delicately limned and tinted oval portraits were highly prized by her new neighbors (47.103.23; 47.103.24) and anticipated the blossoming of pastel portraiture in the painstaking and perceptive hand of John Singleton Copley in Boston as early as 1758. Despite having never traveled to Europe before the American Revolution, Copley was aware of the uncanny refinement of pastel portraiture by the Swiss artist Jean Étienne Liotard (2000.7), with whom he corresponded as early as 1762, and produced bust-length likenesses of affluent New England sitters striking for both the representation of their fashions and the revelation of their character. Copley’s pastels remained in such high regard that his portrait of Mrs. Edward Green (08.1b) was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum before any of the oil portraits for which he is generally known.

Profile portraits may have been the preeminent representatives of portrait draftsmanship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their widespread popularity was created and nurtured by the ethos of practical invention, psychological and anatomical theory, classical study, and republican politics that characterized the Enlightenment in Europe and America. They were also much cheaper than painted portraits. Produced with a drawing machine known as the physiognotrace, profile portraits such as those by the French émigré Charles Balthazar J. F. de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852) and the English-born James Sharples (ca. 1751–1811) and his family offered pre-photographic accuracy, the evocation of classical virtue, and affordability to citizens of a new nation not strongly sympathetic at first to matters of artistic style and aristocratic pretense (66.112; 54.82; 08.144; 24.109.89). Not dissimilar to the iconic objectivity of profile portraits are the austere, black Conté and chalk drawings that John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) fashioned for several Americans living in France during the Napoleonic period (17.134.1; 17.134.3) following his studies with the Neoclassical painter François André Vincent in Paris.

Thanks to expatriate Americans such as Copley and Benjamin West (1738–1820), narrative painting in both Neoclassical and proto-Romantic styles was pioneered in London in the late eighteenth century. For such works, expert preparatory draftsmanship was indispensable to portraying historical personages, articulating the figure in action, and to pictorial composition. Serving the first and second purposes is the pencil portrait by John Trumbull (1756–1843), West’s pupil, of Hugh Mercer, Jr. (06.1346.2), son of the hero of the Battle of Princeton in 1777, which Trumbull made for incorporation into his painting of the event (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). For the monumental tableaus of British military victories that Copley began producing after emigrating to England in 1775, he made hundreds of dynamic figure studies such as those of fleeing and dying Spanish sailors (60.44.19) for his Siege of Gibraltar (1783–91; Guildhall Art Gallery, London). After West became court painter to the fanatically religious King George III, he executed many images of biblical and moral subjects: his superb allegorical chalk drawing Maternity (or Caritas; 2002.1), undoubtedly inspired by Renaissance masters such as Correggio whom West so esteemed, may have been made for reproduction in engraving.

If portraiture and figure painting are the most conspicuous surviving eighteenth-century forms of draftsmanship by Americans, in the countryside decorative drawing in ink and watercolor, usually derived from medieval traditions of manuscript illumination, was practiced, frequently by unknown artists but occasionally by identifiable figures. One such artist was Johann Heinrich Otto (ca. 1733–ca. 1800), author of the fanciful Fraktur Motifs (66.242.1), with its colorful arabesques of crowns, flowers, parrots, and peacocks. Landscape painting, virtually unknown in America before 1800, found its chief expression in picturesque and topographical watercolors, often produced for engraved reproduction. Perhaps the most prominent practitioners in New York City were the Scottish émigré brothers Alexander (1772–1841) and Archibald (1765–1835) Robertson, who founded the city’s first known art school, the Columbia Academy. Their schematic style of representation, exemplified in Collect Pond, New York City, executed in 1798 (54.90.168), is such a typical product of picturesque and pedagogical conventions of the time that it can be attributed only provisionally to one of the brothers, in this case Archibald.