Art in Colonial America

I'm Susan Euler in this program we're going to look at the art of colonial America which grew out of European traditions at least at first but quickly developed into its own unique and totally American style although we no longer credit Christopher Columbus with being the first European explorer to set foot on the North American continent nonetheless in the 16th and 17th centuries Europeans had no idea that such a place existed until Columbus's voyages of discovery fuelled with the idea of getting rich quick it didn't take long before Spanish conquistadors in Portuguese seamen as well as French Dutch and English adventurers set out to explore this amazing new world and see how they could exploit it many died immediately due to the harsh condition and others returned home completely disillusioned but others came back with amazing tales of a rich land that was free to anyone brave enough to take on the enormous task of colonization modern people have no concept of the tremendous scale of hardship these early colonists faced disease starvation lack of proper shelter in an unfamiliar climate in the fighting and arguments over leadership that sometimes resulted in death armed resistance from Native Americans we all know the stories but many thought that living in Europe was far worse so they were willing to take the risk in 1620 the Plymouth Colony was established in Massachusetts the people who settled in this colony are of course the pilgrims who we all study about in school their life was certainly difficult but much less though than the men and women who had settled in Jamestown only 13 years before the Plymouth Colony prospered so eight years later the massachusetts bay colony established Salem Village in 1628 and then Boston in 16:30 by the 1670s people in the American colonies were doing so well that they began to create art the earliest examples we have are gravestones such as this one from Boston it dates to 1678 Boston was a Puritan colony and the Puritans were well known for their importance of frivolity yet it was in the Puritan colony such as Boston that the arts first flourished early tombstones many of which can still be found throughout New England have distinctive motifs the most frequent is a skull with wings which scholars think represents the souls light in the heaven this is a uniquely American design not found in Europe European tombstones of the same period typically had skulls and crossbones but no wings a skull used in the context of a tombstone is a memento mori a reminder of death not something we like to think about today the Joseph tapping tombstone makes the point even clearer adding father time an hourglass and the snuffing out of a candle an excellent example of the meaning of a memento mori can be found in the Seychelles famous fresco the Holy Trinity dating from the Italian Renaissance above the skeleton in the lower register a caption reads I once was what you are and what I am that is dead you also will be a number of the artisans who made gravestones also made shop signs because some colonists couldn't read these signs had colorful and unique visual images in addition to words unlike gravestones which were made of stone and mental ask forever shop signs were made of wood therefore they rotted the paint flake off and they were thrown away only a few examples still exist and these are from after the colonial period and there are many more dungeons since these signs remain popular even today an 18th century painting of an English village by william Hogarth shows how they were originally displayed also shown in Hogarth a navy is another kind of shop sign a large wooden sculpture these sculptures were a form of advertising designed to entice people into a place of business the so called cigar store Indian is the most familiar but other figures such as animals sailors and men in Scottish kilt were also popular the heyday of these advertising sculptures was the 19th century although they were still used until the mid 20th century in some areas wooden figure heads made by professional Carver's and attached to the prow of sailing ships were also popular art forms in colonial America and later made from the sixteenth until the early 20th century these figure heads were used as a way of identifying a particular ship and of course as decoration most figure heads were female and some were quite provocative like the cigar store Indian they were most popular during the 19th century well what about painting the American colonists had a strong tradition in that medium as well and by the 18th century they were producing art that rivaled in anything in Europe like the art forms already discussed painting specifically the portrait painting got its start in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in and around the city of Boston by the 1670s New England was prospering and people were now living in substantial houses which of course needed decoration anonymous artists known as limiters were hired to create family portraits mainly self-taught these limiters developed a flat direct painting style more akin to that of 16th century Tudor England then to the flamboyant painting style of the 17th century nonetheless these portraits are feeding you beautifully and provide us with an intimate glimpse into the character and light of the sitters some of the limiters show their knowledge of contemporary European smiles by incorporating such details as black and white floor tiles in the manner of artists such as the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer but since the limiters were not trained artists their understanding of such things as Renaissance perspective could sometimes be a bit shaky with no horizon line or managing point to convincingly place the sitter in a setting that realistically moves back into space Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is an excellent illustration of how Renaissance perspective is supposed to work with the publication of drawing books as well as the influx of new artists from Europe who were well trained in drawing and painting by the end of the 17th century American art was beginning to rival that of Europe however the flat linear style of the early winners remained popular well into the 19th century seen as a uniquely American alternative to the more realistic European based style you may have noticed how boys and the limiter portraits are wearing what we would call dresses this is because boys in both Europe and America were not allowed to dress like men in breeches that is in pants until they reached what was considered the age of reason usually around age 7 this practice was called breaching an important coming-of-age milestone for all little boys the practice of dressing both boys and girls in long skirts was fairly practical in an age before the invention of diapers if you understand my meaning on the eve of the American Revolution two artists of tremendous talent dominated the American art scene these artists were Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley both were born in the American colonies and were largely self-taught although West did say that as a child some Native Americans taught him how to mix paint from bear recently whether this is true or not West had great admiration for Native Americans and they figured prominently in his paintings today we are most familiar with his work through his history paintings of colonial life like this one at William pan which are used to illustrate American history textbooks but in his own time West was most famous for his huge and very innovative history painting the death of general wolf this painting depicts a scene from the 1759 Battle of Quebec and shows general wool as a christ-like figure dying bravely surrounded by his fellow officers while a Native American warrior in deep thought contemplates the event John Singleton Copley was America's leading portrait painter he earned his reputation painting New England's most prominent citizens Copley to direct spare style reflects the sitter's own taste as sober serious Americans who have rejected the frivolity and ostentation they associated with Europe the dark tonality and simple elegance of public smile is reminiscent of the liver portraits of a century earlier because he lived in Boston complicated many of the leaders of the American Revolution including Samuel Adams and Paul Revere Paul Revere was a renowned silversmith and print maker Copley as depicted in the work rest informally in simple American style working man's lives without his powdered wig the teeth ah he is holding may be significant as Revere was a member of the band of revolutionaries who staged the Boston Tea Party in 1773 incidentally John Singleton Copley father-in-law owned the team that was dumped into Boston Harbor in any event once the revolution started in earnest Copley and his father-in-law moved the family to England where John Singleton Copley would live for the rest of his life never returning to America where the ten minute professor this is Susan regular thanks for 20 minutes and make sure you watch our next program

One Comments

  • Kevin Gaughan

    April 14, 2019

    Thank You Professor Euler, I’ve just started painting again after 35 years and really enjoy your programs. Especially the Hutson River Valley School. Very inspirational! ?


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