Copley's inspired portrait of his friend and colleague Paul Revere (Fig. 2) certainly abides by the rules of the game for colonial portraiture—it is an accurate, intricate, and apparently truthful likeness—even as it presents an encoded story. At the time Revere sat for Copley, he was Boston's most charismatic and versatile silversmith and engraver. The two men had known one another at least since 1763, when Copley ordered from Revere bracelet- and locket-cases for his portrait miniatures. By 1768, the date of Revere's portrait, Copley was an expert at recording what Margaretta Lovell has called "artisanal masculinity," that is, deploying the established tropes of presentation to identify his male sitters.5 Copley knew how to portray a military hero, a rich businessman, a literary man, and other character types, and to distinguish legibly each one, much like a character in a play or a novel. Copley presents Revere as an artist. The clues include the unbuttoned white shirt, the lack of a coat, the hand-to-chin pose, the unengraved teapot, the leather pad, and the needle and burins. Revere is contemplative, creative, skilled, and fully engaged with his client, who, presumably, receives his focused gaze. The implied negotiation at hand—during which the client would decide with Revere's help what image or crest should emblazon the teapot—would determine how the silversmith could in effect embellish the identity and home life of the owner. Copley's clear message in the portrait was that the artist held the mastery.
Following Copley's lead, but with a missionary's zeal, Charles Willson Peale endeavored to define, promote, and burnish the role of the artist in post-revolutionary America. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, Peale's tremendous efforts not only resulted in modernized portraits for discerning clients but also led to the opening of museums and art galleries that would forever transform the market for and public face of American art and its practitioners. In his full-length self-portrait (Fig. 3), Peale's highly theatrical gesture presents him as artist and master of ceremonies in a new world of art and artifacts. He founded his Philadelphia museum in 1784 on Enlightenment principles designed to ensure order, harmony, and virtue in the New Republic. In a long daylit room in the Philadelphia State House (now Independence Hall), Peale designed a rational grid for displaying the portraits of great men that hung above cabinet dioramas and cases for the exhibition of wildlife specimens. His hands-on approach to museum work is evidenced by the palette on the table just behind him and the taxidermy tools near the mounted turkey in front of him. In the portrait's condensed narrative, Peale reveals his process and his product: he is the creator of the picture and of all that can be seen in it. Through a highly codified arrangement of paintings and scientific reconstructions (works of art in their own right) within the circumscribed space of his idiosyncratic museum, Peale prompted potentially life-altering moments for his visitors, such as the woman who raises her hands and cries out, quite losing her composure at the shocking sight of the great mammoth's skeleton.
In the next generation, Samuel F. B. Morse devoted himself to addressing the role and status of the artist in American society through the creation of exhibition spaces, camaraderie among colleagues, and paintings that carried his message. He gained early fame for his heroic portraits and narrative scenes and as founder and first president of the National Academy of Design. A master communicator in paint and with a pen (and later through his eponymous code of dots and dashes), Morse recognized that a great artist could also be a great teacher and that the best paintings went beyond capturing mere likenesses to tell captivating and persuasive stories taken from history, literature, mythology, and everyday life. In the fall of 1833, fresh from his second trip to Europe, Morse finished his Gallery of the Louvre (Fig. 4), a picture that confronted head-on the problems he perceived in the New York art scene: a flood of fake European masterpieces on the market, and insufficient training for American artists. In his painting, he created an Americanized Kunstkammer featuring himself and others—including his friend the author James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)—studying, making, and discussing art in a gallery. In effect, Morse brought home the collection of European paintings he thought most vital to the success of American art at large. He began with the Salon Carré at the Louvre—and the Grande Galerie beyond—stripped it clean of its installation of modern French paintings and re-curated it as a gallery of Euro pean old masters. He put himself in profile at the center, training an American student to see the world of art from his perspective. In the room are other students as well as patrons who, Morse knew, could stand to learn a thing or two about the artist's role in society.
Morse's audience, alas, missed his deeper meaning. Instead of learning about the power of art and the esteem in which artists should be held as intellectuals, creators, and tastemakers, viewers saw his grand painting as an inviting travelogue for those who had not been to Europe and might never visit the Louvre. As the diarist and painter William Dunlap (1766-1839) wrote, "Every artist and connoisseur was charmed with it, but it was ‘caviare to the multitude.'"6 Part of the problem lay in Morse's delivery: his picture presented a lecture on aesthetics and cultural politics instead of telling a story. Within a few years he would give up painting, considering it an ineffective medium for describing the importance of art and the artist.
Morse's slightly younger colleagues were more successful with narrative paintings that announced the role of the artist in society with humor and clarity. For example, in The Painter's Triumph (cover and Fig. 5), William Sidney Mount dispensed with Morse's pedantic tone in favor of a more engaging approach. Like many artists of the period, he conveyed his message by adapting traditional genre painting, derived from Dutch old master or more recent English and French prototypes, which depicted lower- and middle-class people in domestic scenes that were clearly delineated, amusing, and designed to appeal to a broad audience. In an austere, plank-floored rural studio, Mount shows a proud and exultant artist unveiling his creation to the delight of a local spectator—possibly his patron or just a farmer friend—who has come to see the work that will soon be sent off to exhibition. The canvas they gaze at undoubtedly records the world of their experience. The studio contains only a plain chair and a few canvases turned to the unembellished walls. The Apollo Belvedere, an emblem of academic standards for high art, is seen in the drawing on the back wall and appears to be turned away in disgust. Between 1830 and 1860, painters of everyday life such as Mount had to compete for attention with both purveyors of popular entertainment, who looked to the arts for enjoyment and amusement, and conservative tastemakers, who believed that the function of art was to elevate the public and encourage the sort of noble tradition embodied by the Apollo Belvedere.
Meanwhile, Morse was exploring scientific means of enhancing the arts and would succeed in introducing photography to the United States. He returned to Europe in 1838 to secure patents for the telegraph in England and France, and remained in Paris until the spring of 1839, when the first daguerreotypes created a sensation in the French capital. After meeting Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) and viewing a photograph for the first time, Morse lauded the process in a letter to his brothers that appeared in the New York Observer on April 20, 1839, and subsequently in newspapers nationwide. After his return to New York he experimented with the new medium himself and witnessed its adoption as a relatively inexpensive means by which artists could capture likenesses—at least in tiny, monochromatic images.7 By the time Thomas Le Clear painted Interior with Portraits (Fig. 6) American artists had begun to understand the threat that photography posed to the art of painting.