1735-1790: Painters, Paintings, & the American South

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2013 |

The history of the paintings and painters associated with the American South begins in the sixteenth century with maps and natural-history drawings created by the first artist-explorers to arrive in the region. By the mid-seventeenth century the southern colonies also boasted portraiture and other types of paint­ings, all of which increased in number as settlements and populations grew. By the 1750s most painters working in the southern colonies were aware of the best regional markets for their work, and more and more clients were aware of the best available painters. A complex web of relationships had emerged, one that connected artists, clients, sitters, friends, and relatives. While similar connec­tions can be found in other regions of early America, the rural nature of the South made them of paramount importance in establishing artists’ reputations, for it was those connections that enabled artists to secure commissions-through word-of-mouth reports in families and communi­ties as well as through letters of recommendation. My book Painters and Paintings in the Early American South, covering the period 1564 to 1790, explores a host of such associations. In this article I focus on artists who created pictures from the 1730s to about 1790 in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. They provide especially important examples of relationships among painters, includ­ing how those relationships were formed and how they affected the artists’ work.

  • Fig. 1. The Grymes Children attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), 1749-1950. Oil on canvas, 54 by 65 inches. Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.


  • Fig. 2. Portrait possibly of Millicent Conway Gordon (1727-1748?) by John Hesselius (1728-1778), 1750. Signed and dated “J. Hesselius Pinx/1750” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 50 ¼ by 39 ¼ inches. Virginia Historical Society.


  • Fig. 3. Elizabeth Burwell Nelson (Mrs. William Nelson; c. 1711-1798) by Robert Feke (1705-1750?), probably 1749-1751. Oil on canvas, 49 5/8 by 39 5/8 inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, gift of Mrs. Douglas Crocker.


  • Fig. 4. Elizabeth Randolph (later Mrs. Philip Ludwell Grymes; 1742-before 1773) by John Wollaston Jr. (c. 1705-after 1775), 1752-1755. Oil on canvas, 8 ½ by 35 ½ inches. Virginia Historical Society.


  • Fig. 5. Eleanor Calvert [1753-1811] by John Hesselius, 1761. Inscribed “Ellinor Calvert AE 8/John Hesselius Pinx Maryland/1761” on back of the original canvas. Oil on canvas, 30 by 26 inches. Baltimore Museum of Art, gift of Alfred R. and Henry R. Riggs in memory of General Lawrason Riggs; photograph by Mitro Hood.


  • Fig. 6. David Meade Jr. [1744-1830] by Thomas Hudson (1701-1779), possibly 1752. Oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, gift of Tyrell Williams.


  • Fig. 7. Lucy Skelton Gilliam (Mrs. Robert Gilliam; 1743-1789) by John Durand (1746-after 1782), 1780. Inscribed “Lucy Gilliam/aged 37 A.D. 1780./ J. Durand Pinxit” on the back of original canvas. Oil on canvas, 31 ½ by 26 ¼ inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, partial gift of the estate of Mary Bragg Dodd.


  • Fig. 8. George Washington by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), 1772. Signed and dated “Chas: WPeale, pinxt: 1772” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 50 1/8 by 41 inches. Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, Washington-Curtis-Lee Collection.


  • Fig. 9. Thomas Middleton [1753-1797] of the Oaks by Benjamin West (1738-1820), 1770. Signed and date “B. West 1770” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 51 ¾ by 39 ½ inches. Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.


  • Fig. 11. Jupiter and Europa (sometimes referred to as Europa and the Bull) by Matthew Pratt (1734-1805) after Guido Reni (1575-1642), probably 1770-1771. Oil on canvas, 52 ¼ by 39 ¼ inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, partial gift of William H. Cameron.


  • Fig. 10. Ann Fitzhugh Rose (Mrs. Robert Rose; 1720/21-1789) by John Hesselius, 1771. Inscribed “Mrs. Ann Rose. AEtat. 50/J Hesselius Pinx 1771” on the back. Oil on canvas, 30 ¼ by 24 ¾ inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


  • Fig. 12. John Greer Jr. by James Peale (1749-1831), 1794. Initialed and dated “IP/1794” at lower left. Watercolor on ivory, 2 1/8 by 1 5/8 inches. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.


  • Fig. 13. Sir Peter Parker’s Attack against Fort Moultrie by James Peale, probably 1782. Inscribed “Sir Peter Parker’s attack against Fort Moultrie, June 28, 1776” on the back. Oil on canvas, 20 ½ by 29 ½ inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


  • Fig. 15. Charlotte Pepper Gignilliat (Mrs. James Gignilliat; 1748-1803) by Henry Benbridge (1743-1812), c. 1775. Oil on canvas, 29 ½ by 24 ¾ inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, partial gift of Thomas McCutchen Gignilliat.


  • Fig. 14. Mulberry Plantation by Thomas Coram (1756/57-1811), 1790. Oil on paper, 4 by 6 ¾ inches. Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.


One early painter who figures in this history is Gustavus Hesselius, the Philadelphia artist who also worked in Virginia and Maryland. Born in Sweden, probably in Folkärna, Hesselius and other family members were well established in Pennsylvania by 1714. His ties to Maryland were made early, beginning with his naturalization there in 1721. Hesselius completed portraits for various families in Maryland, and at least one Virginia portrait is attributable to him, the group likeness of The Grymes Children (Fig. 1).

Gustavus’s letter of June 26, 1714, to his mother in Sweden details his experience in the colonies and highlights his interest in Native Americans and their customs and resources, includ­ing their foodstuffs and their uses of a variety of trees. He painted at least two portraits of native peoples and may well have created natural history pictures, not only for his own reference but also to send to specialists abroad. It was likely Gustavus, not his brother Andreas, who shipped botanical specimens to the famous scientist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in Sweden and who escorted Pehr Kalm, Linnaeus’s assistant, on his travels in Pennsylvania in 1748 to 1750. Gustavus’s association with other colonial naturalists in America also seems likely since the contacts among men and women with such interests were wide­spread. Botanists such as William Young Jr. (1742-1785), who created hundreds of colored drawings of plants from North and South Caro­lina, and William Bartram (1739-1823), the well-known botanist-artist, also corresponded with Linnaeus and would likely have been acquainted with the Swedish-born Hesselius.

Gustavus was the first teacher of his son, John Hesselius, who, in turn, probably knew, and was thus influenced by, the portrait work of the New England artist Robert Feke, who visited Philadel­phia in 1746 and again in 1749. The younger Hesselius traveled to Virginia in 1750, perhaps with Feke, to fulfill commissions for the Fitzhugh and Gordon families (see Fig. 2). At approxi­mately the same time, Feke completed at least three commissions for the Nelson family of Yorktown-and possibly portraits for other nearby families (see Fig. 3). Hesselius’s portraits from this period show significant reliance on Feke’s style in composition, poses, and choice of backgrounds.

Hesselius’s reliance on Feke’s manner was even­tually replaced by his adoption of the newer watered-down rococo style practiced by John Wollaston Jr. (compare Figs. 4 and 5), a London-trained itinerant painter who worked in Philadelphia and the Annapolis area of Maryland in the mid- to late 1750s. Wollaston was probably taught first by his father, John Wollaston Sr., also a portrait painter. He had further training from a London drapery painter, as testified to by the shimmering quality of fabrics in his portraits. Both Wollastons were capable artists, perhaps second or third rank behind a host of more accomplished London-based portrait painters such as Thomas Hudson, whose style seems to have influenced Wollaston Jr. (Fig. 6). The younger Wollaston was also the first studio-trained itinerant artist in the South and the most prolific portrait painter to work in the region during the eighteenth century. Both Wollastons were well-connected to London’s cultural milieu of artists and musicians, playing in concert with such celebrated composers as George Frideric Handel. In addition, Wollaston Jr. was praised in two poems published in Mary­land at the time he worked there.

In the late 1750s John Hesselius moved to Maryland, where Wollaston’s portraits were hang­ing in numerous houses. It was either there or in Philadelphia that Hesselius encountered and adopted Wollaston’s rococo manner, a style he maintained throughout most of his career. Even as late as the mid-1770s in Virginia, Hesselius and other artists like John Durand, a London-trained painter who arrived in the colonies about 1766, continued using Wollaston-style poses and compositions. Durand’s work, dry by compari­son, reflects his trades training (see Fig. 7). He was not as adept in rendering fabrics as Wollaston or Hesselius. He was, however, a more astute-and more honest-painter of his sitters’ faces, avoid­ing the formulaic approaches that Wollaston had brought to the colonies and that Hesselius emu­lated for so many years.

A well-known but unconfirmed tradition credits John Hesselius as being the first teacher of Charles Willson Peale when both were living in or near Annapolis (see Fig. 8). Anxious to improve his art, Peale also travelled to Massachu­setts to meet with-and study the portraits of-John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) before leaving the colonies for England. With the finan­cial help of generous supporters in Annapolis, Peale studied in England from 1767 to 1769 with transplanted Pennsylvanian Benjamin West, whose first lessons had been in Philadelphia with the painter James Claypoole Sr. (1721-1784). Clay­poole, who knew Gustavus and John Hesselius, was related to both West’s wife and his first American student, Matthew Pratt (1734-1805). Peale seems to have been cognizant of Wollaston as well, for in 1812 he offered numerous details about the English painter’s life.

Peale’s career and numerous contacts cannot be adequately summarized here, but his study abroad with West was critical to his association with other painters and his success as an artist when he returned to America. West was well known to many painters and their clients in the South. In fact, his reputation among southerners and his influence on painters who traveled in the South were likely more extensive than has heretofore been acknowl­edged. While in London several southerners com­missioned portraits from him (Fig. 9), and others referenced him in writings. Matthew Pratt and Peale were but two of West’s students who returned to America and worked in the South during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Pratt’s visit to Virginia is especially well documented through surviving portraits and advertisements for his rare surviving mythological subjects such as Jupiter and Europa (Fig. 11). Other students of West who travelled in the South include Abraham Delanoy Jr. (1742-1795), Ralph Earl (1751-1801), and Joseph Wright (1756-1793). Though Delanoy was in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1768, his length of stay there is unknown, and no portraits attribut­able to him from that region have been found. Most of the southern paintings by Wright date after 1790 and have not been thoroughly researched. Clearly there is more to be learned about West’s role in the web of connections among southern painters and their clients.

Unlike these men, John Hesselius never studied abroad. Even so, he was certainly aware of the newer styles being introduced by West’s returning students. Hesselius’s practice of the Wollaston style in Virginia and Maryland continued until the mid-to-late 1760s, when his work began to shift toward likenesses that were increasingly penetrat­ing and realistic. His late portraits of Sophia Richardson Galloway, Anne Fitzhugh Rose (Fig. 10), and Sophia Dorsey Gough (Mrs. Thomas Gough) are especially revealing of this change. Hesselius’s work over a nearly thirty-year period demonstrates how one artist responded to chang­ing fashion and revised his approach to meet the expectations of clients for newer styles.

In another aspect of Peale’s remarkable career as an artist, he taught painting and drawing to two lesser-known painters in Virginia, William Pierce Jr. and William Mercer, as well as to nearly all the members of his large immediate family. In fact, many of Peale’s relatives became professional paint­ers and naturalists who also drew and painted specimens. Of them, his brother James Peale and his nephew Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822) figure prominently in the story of pre-1790s southern painting. James, like Charles Willson, became an important chronicler of the events of the Revolution­ary War and a painter of full-size and miniature portraits (see Fig. 12) as well as a still-life painter. His Sir Peter Parker’s Attack against Fort Moultrie (Fig. 13) is one of several pictures he produced to capture and commemorate key engagements of the war.

Charles Willson Peale has also been credited with giving miniature-painting lessons to Letitia Benbridge (d. 1776), wife of the artist Henry Benbridge, who, as a young man, had met John Wollaston Jr. in Philadelphia and presumably watched as he painted a portrait of Henry’s stepfather. Though not con­sidered a student of West’s, Benbridge certainly knew the London painter, visited his studio, and con­sulted with him. By the time he met West, Benbridge had completed studies in Rome and then travelled to London. Shortly after his return to America in 1770, Benbridge married and moved with his wife from Philadelphia to Charleston. At the time Charleston and Norfolk, Virginia, were the South’s two leading urban centers, boasting sophisticated mercantile and trading businesses. In addition to claiming wealthy families with outlying plantations, both cities had large and growing middle-class populations that supported a variety of trades, in­cluding trained fine artists and trade-trained paint­ers who also provided easel pictures of various kinds. Benbridge was highly successful in Charleston, creating important full- and conversation-size por­traits (see Fig. 15), as well as miniatures, while his wife probably painted a few miniatures before her death. From 1780 to 1782, following the surrender of American forces at Charleston during the Revo­lutionary War, Benbridge was incarcerated on a prison ship. Upon release he visited Philadelphia, where he completed at least one commission-for Virginia student Bushrod Washington. By l784 Benbridge was again painting in Charleston. Either during that period or, perhaps, earlier, he gave les­sons to Thomas Coram, an artist and engraver whose work has been little known outside of Charleston. By 1801 Benbridge had moved to Norfolk to live near, or perhaps with, his son. Thomas Sully indi­cated to painter-historian William Dunlap that he and his brother Lawrence had met Benbridge in Norfolk and Sully noted that he was “encouraged to try portraits from life, of a small size, in imitation of Mr. Bembridge [sic].”

The Charleston native Charles Fraser (1782-1860) was among the first to recognize Benbridge’s student Coram. Fraser, like Sully, corresponded with William Dunlap, noting that Coram was born in Bristol, England and came to America when he was six years old. Coram stated in his will that he arrived in South Carolina in 1769 to join his father and a brother. Fraser, as quoted in Dunlap, also stated that Coram was related to the noted London philanthropist of the same name who patronized a number of London painters, including William Hogarth (1697-1764).Proving a familial relationship between Thomas Coram of Charleston and the same-named philan­thropist and founder of the Foundling Hospital in London is problematic, but the possibility of such a connection deserves mention since both men had similar interests. In his will Coram left property to the Charleston Orphan Asylum, to which he had also presented a large painting titled Jesus Said Suf­fer Little Children, based on a similar composition by Benjamin West. Fraser and Dunlap note that Coram’s “reading embraced almost every subject connected with his favourite art: he delighted in the history of it, and the biography of eminent painters; and of both it was his habit to collect and transcribe such anecdotes and passages as were striking and useful.” Only a few works by Coram have been identified, among them printed South Carolina currency notes demonstrating his ability as an engraver, a series of landscape paintings owned by the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, and several portraits. Coram’s small scenic views taken in and around Charleston may seem insignificant at first glance (see Fig. 14), but they are well executed and are important as historical documents by an artist who may well qualify as America’s earliest landscape painter.

Even such a cursory survey as this indicates clearly that artists who provided paintings for early southerners, especially those artists who lived in or visited the South, did not work in isolation. All too often, art history studies have treated artists either individually or as members of small regional groups. The title Painters and Paintings in the Early American South is misleading if it suggests a con­tinuation of that approach. Instead, the book seeks a broader context for understanding the early artists who served southern clients-and by extension, for under­standing the taste of those early consumers of art. By linking painters who worked in southern cities to their contemporaries in New England, England, and the Con­tinent, Painters and Paintings in the American South traces some of the complex connections that affected both the art and artists of the early South.