American artists as they saw themselves

November 2009 | In The American School (Fig. 1) Matthew Pratt portrays himself seated at his easel, the sharp profile of his head silhouetted against the canvas, which bears his signature at bottom left. Holding a palette and maulstick to steady his hand, Pratt presents himself as a painter—an astonishing act of bravado as he had just arrived in England from Philadelphia with neither academic training nor patronage. He enhances his bold nar­rative by includ­­­­­ing at the left another painter, Benjamin West, dressed in green. West holds a palette and brushes, but does not paint; rather he instructs three students seated at the table, drawing from the antique with graphite on blue paper. As seen on the walls of the spring 1766 exhibition of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, The American School promoted Pratt as an academically trained painter who set an expert example in the studio school with the requisite tools of his trade. Four years West's senior and determined not to be mistaken for his student, Pratt thus bluffed his way to a better career with a canvas that told a tale from his dreams, rather than from reality.


In her interpretation of The American School, the art historian Susan Rather proposes the modus operandi that engaged Pratt: "The picture, far from passively mirroring an actual situation, represents an active attempt to shape public perception of the colonial painter."1 In this way Pratt's deceptively simple conversation piece—a traditional English group portrait with a subtle narrative conveyed through gestures and attributes—announces an agenda that would preoccupy American artists for more than a century afterward: he sought to present himself as a painter who had the support of knowledgeable viewers and patrons who en­­­dorsed the importance of his profession.

Although the founding philosophy and economic vitality of the American colonies and early nation were impressive, there was little support in those early years, or even thereafter, for artists, either financially or in terms of status. American artists would perforce grapple with the nature of their role and their identity in society. Over time they devised various strategies to generate prestige for their profession, not only by cultivating clientele but by seizing opportunities for public exhibitions and thereby creating conditions that would allow them to paint without commissions. In the eighteenth century artists worked almost entirely within the relatively limited compositional possibilities of portraiture and an equally limited scope of patronage for the arts. After the Revolution, as opportunities for study abroad increased and the American economy began to support the arts, enterprising artists participated in an increasingly bustling marketplace, continually reconfiguring their working patterns according to cultural and economic forces. While the broadening agenda for the arts was manifested in paintings of every subject, it was nowhere more explicitly conveyed than in artists' portrayals of artists—including themselves—in images that made their process and ambitions abundantly clear.

Pratt returned to Philadelphia in 1768, accepting the reality of his life as a portraitist; he would never again paint a picture of such ambition or daring as The American School. It is not surprising that he greatly admired the career of John Singleton Copley from afar and that upon finally meeting him in 1771 in New York he would gush that Copley's glorious portraits would "be flesh and Blood these 200 years to come."2 Yet, as is well known, Copley, too, struggled with the role of the artist in society, wishing for more challenging commissions and the laurels he thought due to great painters. His famous complaint was that "people generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World."3 Yet Copley persevered, having learned from his stepfather, the artist Peter Pelham (1695-1751), and from studying works by John Smibert (1688-1751) that it was possible to convince clients to have themselves depicted in paintings with rich content. Copley offered his sitters fabrics, fashions, and furniture and persuaded them that portraits could create pleasing stories about them rather than simply recording the mundane truth. As the art historian Paul Staiti has noted, Copley's "project in portraiture was not the creation of accurate likenesses but the production of authenticating narratives about people."4

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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