Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First Colonial Self-Portrait c.1680

Before we move on to the artists who influenced the American colonists in the 1700s, I want to take one more look at an earlier artist. His name is Captain Thomas Smith, who back in 1680 painted what is believed to be the first self-portrait on canvas in the colonies. This was rare indeed when most paintings required the exchange of money. An artist wouldn't give up his precious supplies to paint himself, when he could make some money painting someone else!

Besides that, Captain Thomas' style was so very unique compared to other colonial painters. In the portrait, we don't see the the typical Elizabethan court (Tudor) approach but instead, we see somber colors, attention to detail and a clear mastery of light and shadow. All indicators of the Baroque style.

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1601
Classical Biblical tale of Jesus' visitation
So what does Baroque mean? By the late Renaissance, which lasted well into the 1600s, there was a whole host of conflicts stirring in Europe, mostly about religion. The Continent was changing with a reformation underway, causing people by the thousands to leave the Catholic church. In hopes to gain a new foothold, the church created it's own counter-reformation, charging artists to create more Biblically themed works. These were the days of the Italian artists, such as  Caravaggio  and Nicolas Poussin

Up in the north country however, particularly the Dutch, the Protestant artists and patrons were not interested in religious themes, instead they were celebrating their new found wealth and independence. We are talking here about the new middle class merchants who had the money to buy the finest houses, clothes and lifestyle. These folks weren't going to settle on some religious thesis.  Instead they wanted portraits, genre painting (paintings of everyday life) and still life on moderately sized canvases or panels. This was the beginning of their Golden Age (1610-1680) and the
rise of artists like Rembrandt, Vemeer and Rubens.

The Milkmaid, c.1658 Jan Vemeer
Classic example of genre painting
But what's more fascinating is that while the artists of both north and south had different agendas for their work, they all began to use light and shadow (chiaroscuro), a more realistic touch, a push toward naturalism and somber colors--all indicative of the Baroque period. If you'll compare Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (above) to Vemeer's The Milkmaid (left), you'll see the emphasis on light and shadow, exquisite detail, realism and use of color. Both were done and commissioned by different patrons and with different purposes in mind, but were both in keeping with a new approach.

Returning to Captain Thomas Smith, one can see the Baroque influence in his self-portrait. While certainly not as brilliantly accomplished as the other painters, Smith's painting has all the earmarks of the European style--from the lighting to the detail of the clothes he is wearing. If you look a little bit closer, you'll see the painting behind his portrait-- ships at battle with Dutch and British flags unfurled. You can see that he is a man of substance and rather confident with his striking pose.

Notice also his hand resting on the skull, usually a symbol of aging, death or vanity, and then just underneath is a poem scratched out for all to see (there's that Baroque detail for you). If the painting doesn't say anything to the viewer, then perhaps the poem will:

Why why should I the world be minding
Therein a World of Evils Finding.
Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres
thy Joies thy Toies thy wiles thy Warrs
Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.
The Eternall Drawes to him my heart
By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)
To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory

T. S

There's not much known about the man. Most historians believe he was a well-traveled mariner who came to New England in 1650 from Bermuda.  Five other paintings (one as a commission for Harvard) have been attributed to him based on the style used in the self-portrait. Perhaps through his travels he was able to get some training in the Netherlands or at the very least get his hands on copies of the then current-day masters.

Obviously Captain Smith was older and was making no illusions to what was up ahead for him as is evident with the skull and poem. Some say that his painting "career" occurred sometime between 1675 and 1690. But no one really knows for sure. What we do know is that he was the first to spend time on a self-portrait in a style unknown to the colonies at that time. Rather courageous and inventive, I'd say.

To find out more about colonial art don't miss out on next month's issue. 

For classes and workshops go to website: www.jillgoodell.com

No comments:

Post a Comment