Plan Ahead

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Society of the New Republic, 1776–1800

The long struggle for independence isolated the country artistically as well as commercially, but the years following the cessation of hostilities with Britain were ones of steady growth. By the time the American Revolution began, many painters had gone abroad in pursuit of professional education and patronage, some never to return. Others, like Charles Willson Peale, who studied in London between 1767 and 1769, returned to Philadelphia and fought in the war. An artist, inventor, scientist, writer, museum founder, and great friend of George Washington, Peale accepted a commission in 1779 from the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for a full-length depiction of the general (97.33). He subsequently produced many versions of this work, some with the assistance of his brother James, a noted portrait miniaturist and still-life painter.

In the early years of the American republic, Gilbert Stuart rose to prominence; after a twenty-year career in England and Ireland, he returned home to paint President Washington, a project that brought him international fame. Neither well-born nor formally educated, Stuart possessed enormous natural talent and adapted his style to suit his subjects. He was witty, gregarious, a bon vivant, and devoted himself to revelations of human character (07.76).

In 1781, under the Articles of Confederation, the framework of the first United States government was established. It took seven years for the central government to get the states to work together, but the Constitution was finally ratified in 1788 and the first president, George Washington, left Mount Vernon in the spring of 1790 to be sworn into office in the temporary capital of New York City (07.160). In 1793, Washington laid the first cornerstone of the presidential White House in Washington, D.C., the new Neoclassical federal city established on the banks of the Potomac River as a permanent seat of government.

The people of the United States were proud of their young republic. They enthusiastically displayed symbols of patriotism in their homes and on public buildings—replicas of the nation’s official seal, the bald eagle, and images of famous Americans (44.113; 08.144). In addition to portraits, status symbols included sets of silver or porcelain for the service of tea, hot chocolate, and coffee. First valued for their curative powers, these imported beverages were soon counted among the necessities of daily life, and the utensils used in their service became essential as well. Boston’s most famous silversmith was Paul Revere, Jr. With excellent training and a fully stocked and staffed shop, inherited from his father in 1754, Revere developed a thriving business catering to some of the wealthiest families of Massachusetts (1990.226a–d). The removal of British colonial restrictions allowed New England merchants to enter the China trade; the ship Empress of China embarked for Canton in 1784. Wealthy merchants built fine federal mansions in Salem and other urban sites, inspired by British styles of architecture (10.125.81a; 62.16). Neoclassical designs such as those found in George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788; 161 H41) and Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793; NK2229 .S54 1793) had a broad and immediate influence in introducing the “antique” taste, and were widely used by American cabinetmakers.

John Trumbull ascended as the greatest American history painter. The son of a Connecticut governor and a Harvard graduate, his most important contributions to American art are the Revolutionary War scenes he began to paint in England between 1786 and 1788 (06.1346.2). Even his detailed drawings on paper show his intent to capture idealized powerful images with moral purpose. In Connecticut, the most successful painter was Ralph Earl, who studied in London and traveled extensively through England. Although Earl acquired a graceful and fashionable style, he quickly disposed of it upon his return to America in favor of a restrained manner that better suited the modest tastes of the Connecticut country gentry (1979.395).