The National Endowment for the Humanities, together with the American Library Association, has launched in 2008 a program that will supply classrooms and public libraries with reproductions of significant American art, one example on each side of twenty high-quality posters, forty examples in all, under the overall title Picturing America. It was my idea, invited to give the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, to use some of these forty works, with others, to pose the question “What is American about American art?” The question has often arisen; it was asked in almost these exact same words in 1958, by Lloyd Goodrich, then the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His essay was titled “What Is American —in American Art?” and began:
One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.
My impression is that inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.
Yet my skimming survey of our sensitively diverse set of forty artworks cannot avoid these primal Americans. Let us begin with the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his father’s early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner.
Colonial Boston, a town of less than 16,000, accounted for 40 percent of the colonies’ shipping; it abounded in shops and skilled craftsmen but was devoid of art schools and museums; European art entered its homes, if at all, in the form of fine consumer goods and inadequate monochrome prints. Copley was to complain in letters that his fellow colonials “generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew [shoe] maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World” and that his native land offered him “neither precept, example, nor Models.” Peter Pelham was proficient in the art of mezzotint, and Copley’s first known work, done when the boy was fifteen, skillfully imposed the head of one clergyman, the Reverend William Welsteed, upon the torso of a portrait print his stepfather had executed of another, the Reverend William Cooper.
Copley’s oil portrait of his stepbrother, Charles Pelham, executed a year or so later, is a typical stiff portrait of the period, with a totally indecisive background and a tabletop in odd perspective, yet with a pleasing care in such details as the pen and the vest and an arresting liveliness to the young subject’s glance. By 1756, the teenage artist attempted, in the portrait of Ann Tyng, a nearly full-length female figure, a landscaped background, and an apparatus of pastoral conceit; by the next year, in that of the aristocratic Theodore Atkinson Jr., who still wears a wary stiffness in the pose and expression, the painter achieved a marvelous virtuosic realism in the white silk waistcoat embroidered with silver thread.
A canvas of Epes Sargent, the seventy-year-old owner of half of Gloucester, shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth. The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Sargent’s shoulder from his powdered wig. By the year of this painting, Copley, not yet thirty, was already recognized as a worker of visual miracles, the supreme portraitist not only in New England but in all the colonies, combining a preternatural skill in mimicking fabrics—as marvelous in pastel, as we see in his rendering of the merchant prince Jonathan Jackson and his blue-green silk morning coat, as in oil—with an increasing power of conveying the inner life behind the faces of his New World aristocrats. For instance, in the portrait of Mrs. James Warren, née Mercy Otis, a colonial rarity, a female intellectual, poet, and future playwright and historian, her facial expression is as complex as the folds and lace trimmings of her voluminous blue satin dress, painted when Copley was only twenty-five.
The Copley example chosen by the Picturing America series is his 1768 portrait of a successful Boston silversmith, Paul Revere, whose name, thanks to an 1861 poem by Longfellow, would come to reverberate in the legend of the American Revolution. It is Copley’s only portrait of a craftsman in shirtsleeves, and the painting itself shows some merely craftsmanly qualities. The shirt is splendid but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful. Whatever Revere is thinking about, it is most probably not the midnight ride he will undertake in eight years’ time but the job he will undertake tomorrow morning, its meticulous graving and polishing.
This painting, and one several years later of the rising firebrand Samuel Adams, might lead one to associate Copley with the colonies’ cause of independence, but in fact he married the daughter of Richard Clarke, principal agent for the British East India Company; it was Clarke’s tea, largely, that was dumped into Boston Harbor by revolutionaries painted as Mohawk Indians. In the coming crunch, Clarke was a Tory, and by 1776 Copley had settled with his wife, children, and father-in-law in London’s Leicester Square. But for a decade before this Copley had been seeking to make his painting more English. He wrote in a letter of yearning “to acquire that bold free and gracefull stile of Painting that will, if ever, come much slower from the mere dictates of Nature, which has hither too been my only instructor.”
In 1765, seeking better instruction, he submitted a painting of his half-brother Henry Pelham, titled Boy with a Squirrel, to the 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. His friend Captain R.G. Bruce, who had carried the canvas to England, sent back the approbation of Joshua Reynolds, the leading British portraitist of the day and soon to be the first president of the Royal Academy. In Bruce’s paraphrase, Reynolds said, “Considering the Dissadvantages…you had laboured under, that it was a very wonderfull Performance” despite “a little Hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness.”
The same mail brought Copley word from Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West, who in three years of London residence had apparently mastered English artistic style and manners. West wrote of “the great Honour the Picture has gaind you,” though he and some fellow artists had found fault with it as “being to[o] liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines.” Reynolds, by way of Bruce, encouraged Copley to come to England “before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way at Boston,” and the Society of Artists elected him a fellow on the strength of the “liney” canvas; the contemporary art authority John Wilmerding points out that it was the “first major work painted by an American artist for himself, rather than on commission, and it also became the first American picture to be exhibited abroad.” Copley, Tory or not, was the George Washington of American art, and, rather disconcertingly, he knew it, writing Pelham in 1775 from England’s shores, “It is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artist’s that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.”
This picture’s transatlantic intentions give it a schizophrenic quality: the mahogany tabletop, the water glass, gold chain, and the tiny pet flying squirrel have all a dry minuteness, but the subject’s face, unlike that of Copley’s usual hard-faced colonials, is creamy, dreamy, and in romantic profile. Copley’s customers for portraits among the colonial gentry put up with an absence of flattery, a refusal to glamorize, that British sitters of comparable status might not have accepted; even here, Copley’s warts-and-all portrait policy permanized in paint his half-brother’s oddly folded ear, as well as, elsewhere, Nathaniel Allen’s hairy moles and Miles Sherbrook’s acne scars.
Copley’s next submission to the Society of Artists, for the 1767 exhibition, was titled Young Lady with a Bird and Dog. This time, Benjamin West complained that the girl looked “disagreeable,” and conveyed Reynolds’s opinion that
Each Part of the Picture [is] Equell in Strenght of Coulering and finishing, Each Making to[o] much a Picture of its silf, without the Due Subordanation to the Principle Parts, viz they head and hands.
What Reynolds meant is shown by a sampling of his own portraits of Horace Walpole and Lawrence Sterne. In both, light is sharply focused on the head and one hand. Incidental details are confined to papers, since both men are writers, acting out their roles on a minimalist stage. In Reynolds’s more elaborate portrait of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, the proficiently painted details of clothing and furniture do not usurp attention from the casually posed nobleman and agent of empire, but frame him, in his relaxed dignity; he has a good opinion of himself, and the portrait agrees.
The confident theatricality of English portraits, when Copley attempts it, seems to embarrass his down-to-earth colonial subjects, and turns their expressions ironical, as we see Sylvester Gardner’s in his 1772 portrait. If their poses are stiff, it is an honest wooden stiffness; in Copley’s paintings of English gentry, the stiffness is burnished to a metallic luster, and rings hollow. Even in his most admired and ambitious English painting, a historical tableau in the approved Grand Style, The Death of Major Peirson, the central pictorial incident, with its single drop-shaped drop of blood, feels staged to the point of farce. And the dying hero’s flowing hair, and the spruce details of the uniforms crowding around him, seem, well, “liney.”
What did Benjamin West mean by this word? A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Lines serve the facts. Folk art tends to be “liney,” as we can see in anonymous American portraits done well before Copley, earlier in the eighteenth century. Such portraits, executed as a “useful trade” like sign-painting and printmaking, were the sole genre of high art widely practiced in America before the nineteenth century brought in Romantic landscapes. They share a resolute attempt at likeness and an honest notation of such details as fabric patterns but lack a convincing atmosphere and a third dimension; they are, as it were, two-and-a-half-dimensional, and so was Copley’s early work. The conventions of illusionistic painting, providing through tint and brushwork the sense of recession in space and of enclosing atmosphere, are not demanded by every culture. In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley’s lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail. “Overminuteness” could scarcely exist, as it did not exist for Holbein or Jan Van Eyck.