Research Resources

Colonial America: Art and Imagery

Colonial American art is customarily distinguished from Native American art; colonial art looked back to Europe for its styles, subject, and its training. Three major strains distinguished themselves relatively rapidly: a sophisticated European style practiced by elite artists who were visiting from Europe or who had emigrated here; a vernacular "limner" tradition practiced by lesser-trained, back-country artists who fulfilled a demand for images with styles they devised themselves; and an increasingly energetic American style that sought to distinguish itself from imitation of European tastes and to adapt to the demands of this new place and culture.

Inevitably, the passage of time and the development of American-trained artists accelerated the move toward this final strain. At first, however, the artists of the American colonies were provincial: they tended to look with nostalgia and yearning to their home-countries. 

An unnamed painter who is now known as the Freake limner or the Freake-Gibbs limner exemplifies the vernacular tradition. Working in the Boston, Massachusetts, area in the later 1600s, this painter provided portraits, and it's evident he or she had developed some training. Still the ability to render costume and setting outweighed the ability to describe the person herself, and the flattened, inaccurate perspective is characteristic of the limner tradition.


Freake limner, Portrait of Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary

By contrast, Robert Feke and John Smibert represented early versions of the cultivated tradition. It's quite possible that Feke learned his craft from Smibert, though it's generally conceded that he returned to Europe to study and paint at some point. Smibert came from Europe-- he'd started out in Scotland as a house painter, shifted over to illustrated sign painting, and then traveled while very young to London to study, and then to Italy and elsewhere. When he came to America, he brought a sophisticated continental mastery of painting combined with a Scottish sense of plain-ness and economy, and a British portrait style. His paintings of Bostonian merchants, judges, and other elites reflect his own connection by marriage to those figures, as well as his talent.


Smibert, Judge Edmund Quincy, 1737


John Smibert, Mrs. William Dudley (Elizabeth Davenport) 1729

Robert Feke further elevated the portrait in America toward European, and especially British, tastes. His portrait of Isaac Winslow, ca. 1748, celebrates the patron as a man of wealth and taste.


By the end of the colonial era, a new form of American art had begun to show itself, one which mixed the plainness and democracy of the limner tradition with the painterly talents and disciplined training of the cultivated artists. John Singleton Copley, for example, produced images with a richness of light the belied their directness of vision.


John Singleton Copley, Boy with a Squirrel [Portrait of Henry Pelham] 1765.

His portrait of Paul Revere as the silversmith that he was, is equally legendary-- the rendering of reflections on silver, the sober homeliness of the face, the plain clothes, are all made luminous.


John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere ca. 1768