Sunday, April 5, 2015

When art changed in colonial America

If one were to pinpoint a time when art changed in colonial America, it would be the day John Smibert landed in Boston in 1730. Although considered only competent as an artist in London, where the competition was stiff, Smibert became a celebrity in the colonies. Even more, he was someone who had been formally trained and was willing to share his knowledge of what he had learned academically as well as travels to Italy.

Within four years of his arrival, he opened a shop, selling art supplies as the advertisement shows below. Upstairs, he also had a bundle of his copied work of Masters from his time in Italy: Raphael, Titian, Poussin, Van Dyck and more.

Advertisements. "John Smibert, painter, Sells all sorts of colours, dry or ground, with oils and brushes. ... Wholesale or retail at reasonable rates, at his house in Queen-Street, between the Town-House and the orange tree, Boston," 1734
Here was an opportunity for so many art-starved artists to learn how to paint. Traditionally, most artists learned how to draw and/or painting under the tutelage of a master. All the greats did it—Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael. Another method was to learn through imitation, copying other people’s work in order to learn the tricks of the trade.

Let me step back a bit here and give you a brief history on artists in training up until the late Renaissance. For over four hundred years, young men (sorry, girls weren't allowed) were brought into a guild or workshop to study under masters as apprentices. Eventually, after a minimum of six years or so, the apprentice would strike out independently, become a master and hire his own apprentices. The master's work was not easy. He had to not only train his apprentices, but also look for work--commissions, negotiated the fees, prepare the contracts, purchase all the materials, actually create/design the work and then collect the money. In other words, he became a businessman and master artist!

Back then painters were painters and they took every type of job from decorating furniture and altar pieces to portraits and frescos. They were considered tradesmen or craftsmen. The whole idea of being divinely inspired or gifted didn't come into being until after the Renaissance (which ran roughly from the 1300s to the 1700s).  In time, the guilds lost favor (lots of politics) and the academic world took over training young men to be artists. That’s when something terrible happened—well, at least in my opinion. Suddenly, the skill in learning art became a divine gift and only those with that gift could be trained. While researching this article, I ran across this quote that epitomizes this thought process:
 "All this may appear incredible [teaching art in a guild environment] to those who feel that the role of the art school is to encourage and train the already gifted. [Today], we do not believe that education alone can create a good artist: some kind of talent, of inspiration (divine or otherwise) marks a person for further artistic study. In fact, students are not admitted to most art schools unless they give some indication in their portfolio of artistic ability. The idea that almost anyone, given enough time and enough experience, can give a creditable artistic performance would sound like nonsense to most art school teachers." Source: Bruce Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian, New York: Harper & Row, 1983 

As most of you know, I vehemently disagree with this school of thought. I have now taught over 2,000 people the skill of drawing. I have seen over and over again people walking into my classroom, believing they can’t draw and leaving knowing they can! Yes, there are some people who have a natural ability, such as Mozart with music, Albrecht Dürer with drawing or Blaise Pascal with mathematics. However, most artists can be trained to see, to really see and then to translate that to paper, canvas, clay or whatever medium he or she is using. It’s not divine intervention. It’s simply hard work.

Although somewhat of a long explanation of what type of art training European men were receiving in the 1730s, it just wasn’t happening in the colonies.  Instead, as we’ve learned, artists were just scraping by, both economically and academically. Most colonial children were not given a formal education and if they were, because they were from wealthy families, the education was provided by tutors. And the subject matter was basic: reading, writing, simple math, poems, and prayers. Our early colleges (Harvard being the oldest at 1636), were created to train the clergy. Thus, there was no real place to learn art, other than needlepoint, which is what the girls were learning from tutors or governesses.

So you see, Smibert opened new doors for artistic study in the Boston area with his plaster casts (of human form) and copies of masters’ work. Now, artists in training could truly take their work a step further. I can only imagine how exciting this must have been for the artists living in Boston proper. Not only would I have been able to get fresh, new supplies at an "art shop," but also a glimpse of work done through the ages. (We take all our visual opportunities today, such as books, television, museums, Internet, for granted.) Of course artists flocked to his shop. After his death, it actually became the center of art for Boston, giving birth to future, American-born artists such as John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) and John Trumball (1756-1843). Some say it was the first American workshop for artists in colonial America.

Smibert’s work
But his shop wasn’t Smibert’s only business. After all, he was a working artist. While his reputation may not have been spectacular in London, Smibert was rather celebrated in Boston. His abilities and skills were far and above anyone else's, since most other artists here were self-taught. One of his first paintings created in the New World was, The Bermuda Group now at Yale University

The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and His Entourage), begun in 1728, finished 1739.

Back in London he had befriended Bishop Berkeley who wanted to open a college in Bermuda with Smibert heading up the fine arts department. As things played out though, the college never happened. 

The Bermuda Group set the colonial art stage on fire. No one had ever painted like this in the colonies. The complexity, detail and realism were awe-inspiring. While those in contemporary England may have been highly critical of the painting, pointing out its mistakes, those in this new land, saw it as a masterpiece. It's the old, big fish in a small pond idea. By the way, off to the far left some believe stands the artist. He was certainly leading the way for other artists.

While, I suppose, Smibert was just trying to do everything he could to drum up business, his efforts had a far lasting effect on early American art. He literally gave a head start to budding artists, whom we enjoy to this day.

Join me next month to learn about John Singleton Copely, the first American-born artist who made it “big.”

For classes and/or workshops go to website:

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