American artists as they saw themselves

Editorial Staff Art

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

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.

Le Clear reportedly executed Interior with Por­­­traits about 1865 on commission from the elder brother of the two children—James (1831-1865) and Parnall (1833-1849) Sidway—who are shown posing in a skylit studio.8 The photographer is seen at the right, his head hidden under a cloth as he peers through the lens of his camera, which required a wet collodion process that became available in 1860. The setting is probably the space in New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building that Le Clear leased when he moved to the city from Buffalo in 1863. The studio contains casts of the Borghese Gladiator and the Venus de Milo, prints and copies after the old masters, portraits, an easel, and a painted landscape backdrop. Yet the paraphernalia of painting is upstaged by the photographer and his gear and the landscape is merely a prop, not an awe-inspiring view. Interior with Portraits, however, does not simply tell a story of the triumph of photography over painting. In fact, by 1865, James Sidway was not a child but a volunteer firefighter in his mid-twenties, whose recent death in a hotel fire may have occasioned the commission for the painting. His younger sister, Parnall, who appears older than him, had died in adolescence, more than fifteen years earlier. Thus, Le Clear seems subtly to be lauding painters who, unlike photographers, can go beyond the limitations of technology to capture more than the moment at hand—in this case inventing a narrative and restoring life to individuals who have passed from the scene.

The setting for William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio (Fig. 8), painted almost a quarter of a century later, is again an interior in the Tenth Street Studio Building, which had become America’s artistic citadel and the perfect forum for Chase’s professional ambitions. Indeed, Chase epitomizes the late nineteenth-century cosmopolitan American artist whose style was formed by instruction in European schools and association with foreign colleagues. To Chase and his American contemporaries, going abroad and gathering objects from abroad were interdependent, equally appealing activities. They displayed mementos of travel and their own pictures in their studios, where they hosted exhibitions, receptions, and private viewings for critics, potential patrons, and other guests.

In Chase’s Tenth Street Studio, one of the earliest and most ambitious of his studio interiors, a fashionably dressed young woman lounges in a blue armchair, casually studying a print or drawing and chatting with Chase, who is almost lost in the shadows at the right. Although the artist shows himself holding his palette, as if caught in a pause from work, he leaves the narrative and the young woman’s role vague. She might be a model for a portrait, a patron, or merely a friend.9 Chase enlivens the scene by placing the young woman off center, enticing the viewer’s eye with her bright white gown. Using the napping dog as a fulcrum, he creates a droll balance between her slender vertical shape and the broad framed landscape at the left. By comparison with spartan mid-century workshops like the one Mount described in The Painter’s Triumph or Le Clear showed in Interior with Portraits, Chase’s luxurious studio was a showcase for his refinement and his association with tradition, a place for aesthetic display and contemplation, a retreat from urban confusion, and a paradigm of his period’s internationalist taste. The studio itself and Chase’s portrayals of it embodied the self-confidence of an artist who operated successfully on an international stage, painted a variety of subjects for diverse clients, and participated at the highest and most energetic level in an American art world, then characterized by new facilities for exhibition, new professional organizations and schools for instruction, and a new level of sophistication in art criticism and art appreciation.

Like Chase, George de Forest Brush enjoyed demonstrating his sophistication and his technical skill and using his works to advance the professional stature of American painters. Brush’s Picture Writer’s Story (Fig. 7) merges the theme of an artist at work with ethnography and allows him to demonstrate his command of academic principles, which he had mastered at the National Academy of Design in New York between 1870 and 1873 and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he worked, principally under Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), from 1874 to 1879. Returning to the United States in 1880, Brush sought his subjects in the American Indian tribes he lived among in the early 1880s, and in the Canadian tribes he observed between l886 and l888. Native Americans offered Brush an opportunity to engage in the fundamental Beaux-Arts exercise, to paint the exotic nude. Again like Gérôme, Brush sketched during his travels, collected artifacts and possibly photographs for reference, and worked from models in his studio. The Picture Writer’s Story portrays the interior of a Mandan lodge, where a painter describes to two younger tribesmen the battle he has documented on a buffalo hide, thereby passing down in picture and oral narrative a tale of his tribe’s history and cultural heritage.10 Intending to express the universality of human experience in his paintings of Indians, as he explained in the Century Magazine in 1885, Brush quotes figures from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling of 1508 to 1512: the Libyan Sibyl, seen in reverse, becomes the picture writer, and Adam, from the Creation of Adam, is cast as the torpid young man at the right, who might be energized by hearing and seeing the picture writer’s story.11 Many of Brush’s later paintings cast members of his family in secular madonna and child guises and were obviously related to old masters. These paintings had the advantage of enhancing Brush’s patronage among collectors who were acquiring old master paintings and who might be sympathetic to American pictures that were resonant in appearance and spirit, but they also aligned Brush incontrovertibly with the highest form of high art and amplified his prestige.

By 1900 impressionists such as Chase and academics such as Brush were challenged by the more realistic approach to scenes of everyday life espoused by the Ashcan school. And both groups of artists were forced to reckon with even more radical ideas in a huge exhibition first held in February and March 1913 at New York’s Sixty-ninth Infantry Regiment Armory—the extraordinary Armory Show—which brought widespread attention to work by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and other European modernists.12 Despite the advent of cubism, fauvism, and abstraction—and the emergence of motion pictures as vehicles for telling stories—several successful American painters continued to explore established styles and narrative devices in the early decades of the twentieth century.

John Singer Sargent, for example, the prolific and versatile American expatriate painter based in England, enjoyed great international acclaim and patronage. By 1900, when his reputation as a portraitist reached its apogee, he had been elected a member of London’s Royal Academy of Arts and New York’s National Academy of Design and was an officer of the Légion d’honneur. What American painters since the earliest times had hoped for Sargent had accomplished: he had substantial patronage for his work and sufficient prestige to achieve social parity with his clients. He was thus in a position to pursue a more personal expressive agenda in his paintings. His Sketchers (Fig. 9), for example, probably painted in the summer just after the Armory Show, is a quintessential impressionist studio scene, embodying the French principles with which he had experimented by about 1878 and reflecting the freedom of the dazzling watercolors he made during his travels.13 The canvas is believed to portray Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn (1870-1951) and his wife, Jane Emmet de Glehn (1873-1961), painting outdoors in September 1913 near Lake Garda in San Vigilio, Italy, where they had joined Sargent’s entourage. Detached from the claims of mundane existence, the de Glehns were absorbed in making art by transcribing nature. There is no hint of human intrusion in the landscape, no recognition of Sargent’s or the viewer’s presence. The Sketchers records the genteel existence that Sargent and his contemporaries enjoyed, an existence that would be forever altered by the international social and political changes wrought by World War I.14 In Sargent’s sunlit San Vigilio in early autumn 1913, there is no premonition of the guns of August 1914 at Sarajevo, and no acknowledgment of the radical changes in art and culture that were challenging the identity and methods of American painters. Convinced of the authority of his profession and the merit of his practice, Sargent suggested in The Sketchers that the painter’s essential task was still what it had been for Morse, Mount, Le Clear, Chase, and his other predecessors: to behold the world of familiar experience, distill from it credible and consequential stories, and share those stories with viewers.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, which is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 12, 2009 to January 24, 2010, is organized by H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt, both of the Metropolitan Museum, in association with E. Bruce Robertson, professor of art history, University of California, Santa Barbara, and consulting curator, Department of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Margaret C. Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, also contributed to the planning of the exhibition and the catalogue.

Visit to participate in the American Stories blog and learn more about the exhibition and its catalogue. The exhibition will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 28 to May 23, 2010.

1 Susan Rather, “A Painter’s Progress: Matthew Pratt and The American School,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Journal, vol. 28 (1993), p. 169.  2 Matthew Pratt quoted in Copley’s letter to his stepbrother Henry Pelham, November 6, 1771, The Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776 (Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, 1914), p. 174.  3 Copley to Benjamin West or Captain R. G. Bruce, c. 1767, ibid., pp. 65-66.  4 Paul Staiti, “Character and Class” in Carrie Rebora [Barratt] et al., John Singleton Copley in America (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995), p. 74.  5 Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2005), p. 104.  6 William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York, 1834), vol. 2, p. 317.  7 Carlton Mabee, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse, rev. ed. (Purple Mountain Press, Fleisch­manns, New York, 2000), pp. 226-244.  8 For accounts of the painting, see Chase Viele, “From Flames to Fame: The Sidway Double Portrait, 1865,” Western New York Heritage, vol. 3 (Winter 1999), pp. 32-42; Angela Miller, “Death and Resurrection in an Artist’s Studio,” American Art, vol.  20, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 84-95; and http://american­  9 The authors thank Andrew Walker, assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of American art, Saint Louis Art Museum, for sharing his thoughts on the content of the painting.  10 Emily Dana Shapiro, “Machine Crafted: The Image of the Artisan in American Genre Painting, 1877-1908,” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 2003, pp. 104-109, provides a useful account of the painting.  11 George de Forest Brush, “An Artist Among the Indians,” Century Magazine, vol. 30, no. 8 (May 1885), p. 57. Alexander Nemerov, “Doing the ‘Old America,'” in The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, ed. William H. Truettner (National Museum of American Art, Washington, 1991), pp. 323-326, discusses torpor in the painting.  12 Catalogue of International Exhibition of Modern Art, Association of American Painters and Sculptors (New York, 1913).  13 For an in-depth discussion of this picture, see Charles Merrill Mount, “A Phoenix at Richmond,” Arts in Virginia, vol. 18 (Spring 1978), pp. 2-19.  14 Patricia Hills, “‘Painted Diaries’: Sargent’s Late Subject Pictures,” in Patricia Hills et al., John Singer Sargent (Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1986), p. 203: “What Sargent wanted to see was not reality, but the holiday, aestheticized world of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.”

H. Barbara Weinberg is the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Carrie Rebora Barratt is the associate director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.