Monday, February 2, 2015

Limners & Patroons

Today, as always, it's hard for artists to find the right audience for their art. You get work where and when you can! It was even harder in the early colonial days. Back then, the sheer struggle to exist in a harsh new world was ever present. Decorating your home with art wasn't really the thing to do, especially if you were a Puritan who shunned iconic images. But there were artists carving out a living, mostly by designing and painting trade signs for shops, house painting or even some decorative stints from murals to adorning carriages.

Things changed by the mid-17th century. The mercantile industry in New England and New Netherlands was exploding. The southern city of Charleston was becoming a haven for landowners who were creating sprawling farms called plantations. Wealth was slowly being accumulated in the New World. And with it, the desire to have portraits created just like the wealthy back "home." Let's remember that while the colonial residents were living and exploring a new life, they were still Europeans and what happened across the pond, was going to happen here or as least for maybe 100 years.

The earliest portrait works date back to the mid-1600, about the same time of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Velazquez in Europe. There were two types of artists here: the limners and the patroons. Limn meant drawing and most artists were named after the task. (I think it's a far better word than drawers, which some of us use to describe artists who draw). Limners were notorious for not signing their work--perhaps because they were doing it commercially (signage) or on commission for family members. Whatever the reason, we see most of these early works as very primitive. Most limners, if not all, had no formal training, banking on their natural ability to see and paint. Two such paintings are:
Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary and Anne Pollard.

Elizabeth Freake was married to a wealthy merchant and attorney in Boston. Mary, the child she is holding, was one of eight that Elizabeth bore. As you can see, the painting is somewhat flat and stilted, a decorative method used by New England limners that imitated the Tudor style of painting so popular during the reign of Elizabeth I. Even so, notice the intricate detail of the lace and garments. Not bad for lack of training!

Another unnamed limner painted the picture of the then famous Anne Pollard c.1721. She too lived in Boston and this painting was to commemorate her 100th birthday. Notice how more light and shadow have been added in this picture as opposed to the last, but it is somewhat primitive, harsh is more the word, which probably represents the sitter's staunch features. 

By the way, there's an interesting story about Mrs. Pollard. In 1630, Anne, at eight years of age, was so determined to be the first person to land on shore in the New World, she jumped ship and swam in the shallow water to  the shoreline of what would become Boston someday. She would marry innkeeper William Pollard and they had thirteen children (no wonder she looks so unhappy!). They opened a tavern in Boston and she continued the business after her husband died. She survived another four years after this painting was completed and supposedly left 130 descendants. Can you imagine the crowd over the reading of the will?

Heading south toward New Netherlands (eventually New York), limners were getting work there as well. But instead of the flat, Tudor influence, this  was the land of the Dutch, whose homeland artists used modeling with light and shadow. A perfect example of this type of painting is of Mrs. Gerret Duyckinck c.1700. There's not much to find on Mrs. Garret, beyond the fact that she married in Albany, NY, in 1683, mothered 11 children and the family owned large tracts of land.

Interestingly if you compare this painting with the two above, you can see a difference in skill--perhaps the artist had some training in Holland and apprenticed under someone there. In any event, one can see a major style influence with the clothing and even her personality.

As said above, there is one common thread throughout the story of the limners and that's wealth. Just like Michangelo,da Vinci and even Norman Rockwell as we learned in December's newsletter, artists need to have a patron or an organization that will pay the bills. And between 1715 to 1730 or so, there were artists who benefited from such backing and it occurred in the New Netherlands. There was a new breed of wealthy landowners, called patroons (also the name for owners/heads of a companies) that desired portraits. But these would be full length, not just head shots. One of the most famous is that of John Van Cortlandt c.1731

Patroon painters, as they came to be known, worked in either full or three-quarter lengths figures. Animals were often added to the mix. Notice the tame deer being petted by Cortlandt.The backgrounds would either be lush countrysides or buildings, and the subject would be somewhat gesturing.  Some say that this was the beginning of true American art. Perhaps, perhaps not. 

Next month, I'm going to look at the artist John Smibert, a Scot, who would influence many future true native sons (and daughters). As we will continue to see, colonial art in the 18th century, outside of commercial signage and needlework, was primarily the portrait. That wouldn't change until the first landscape which was painted by a woman in the mid-1700s. So stay-tuned for that story and another one about a woman who would influence John Trumbull, the creator of the painting, Declaration of Independence, that graces our two-dollar bill.

Winter II 2015
Glastonbury Studios Classes

6-Week Class Term
Week of March 1 to Week of April 5
Limited to six students per class
Register by email: 
Please note: Limited space per class. Payment reserves your seat.

See website for more details:

Drawing in My Studio
  • Every Tuesday evening
  • 7 pm to 9 pm 
  • $75 per term
  • Wild Animals/Mixed media
The Morning Draw
  • Every Wednesday morning
  • 10 am to 12:30 pm 
  • $85 per term
  • Wild Animals/Mixed media
 Acrylic Painting: Abstracts II
  • Every Thursday evening 
  • 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm 
  • $90 per term
  • Beginner to Intermediate
 Second Sundays 
Spring/Summer Glastonbury Studios Workshops
All workshops are held in my Tigard studio from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Most supplies provided, including lunch. $99 per workshop
For more information email:
Space limited to nine students.
  • Let's Learn About Color! Saturday March 28
  • Beginning Acrylics   Saturday May 9
  • Drawing Cats  Saturday June 13
  • Drawing with Pastels  Saturday, July 11

PCC Saturday Workshops
Drawing Flowers: 
Saturday, March 7

Travel Sketching 
Saturday, March 21

For PCC info to their website or call 971-722-6266

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