It always comes as something of a surprise to be reminded of how early in our history certain cultural issues and aesthetic impulses came to be defined for the most aspiring American painters. Something like the divisions we associate with a later period-the division, say, between the tough-minded realism of Thomas Eakins and the expatriate elegance of John Singer Sargent-were already apparent in the work that has come down to us from the Colonial era and the early years of our independence.
Such divisions, like the literary differences that would one day separate Mark Twain from Henry James, made their debut in American cultural life even before the United States existed as a nation. The option to become a British or some other kind of European artist was there from the outset, and so was the problem of what, after all, it meant to be an artist in a society that did not yet-could not yet-have a distinctly American tradition. This dilemma could turn on a decision to remain at home or to seek one’s fortune abroad. Politics could also play a role: Artists who remained loyal to the British crown after the Revolution were often obliged to expatriate themselves.
We’ve been given an exemplary opportunity to observe the currents and countercurrents of this period in the exhibition of 18th-century American art that M.P. Naud and Debra Wieder have now organized at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries. As its title suggests, Likenesses & Landskips: A Portrait of the Eighteenth Century is dominated by portrait paintings, some of which have rarely been publicly exhibited before now. The stars of the period-John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West-are almost all represented (the Gilbert Stuart painting featured in the catalog has been sold and removed from the exhibition). Of special interest is Peale’s Portrait of George Washington at Yorktown (1780-82), a painting that was acquired in 1782 by the Marechal de Rochambeau, the commander of the French army in the Battle of Yorktown, and remained in the possession of the Rochambeau family until earlier this year.
Of special interest, too, is a group of seven portraits by Ralph Earl (1751-1801), a lesser-known, versatile talent of the period whose fortunes were very much determined by his political loyalties. According to the catalog for Likenesses & Landskips , “Earl’s politics interrupted his American career in 1777, when his Loyalist sympathies forced him to flee to England. After working for several years in Norwich, East Anglia, Earl moved to London in 1783, where he studied with Benjamin West. Earl achieved considerable success in London, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and receiving commissions for major portraits of prominent Englishmen.” His masterpiece in the current show is the Portrait of Henriette Luard (1783), a painting far more English than American in its sheer painterly elegance.
It was not uncommon, of course, for American painters to adapt their styles to English tastes for the London market. As we are reminded by Arlene Katz Nichols in her splendid catalog essay, “the historical irony [is] that Benjamin West, who was a distinguished European painter with intimate ties to the British court and art establishment, remains identified as an American artist, while Copley, the unchallenged master of American art before the Revolution, is often viewed, after 1775, as an English artist.” To compound the irony, one of the most accomplished paintings in the current show is a group portrait of His Majesty George III Resuming Power in 1789 (1789), by Benjamin West.
Landscape is only minimally represented in the show and does not make much of an impression. Indeed, the best examples of landscape painting are to be found in the background details in some of the portraits: the view through the window (if that’s what it is) in Ralph Earl’s Portrait of Mr. David Hubbell (1795), and the glimpse of the tall trees against a cloudy sky in the upper left-hand corner of West’s delightful painting, Three Ladies Making Music (1798). The latter is also one of the few paintings in the exhibition that gives us a look at the life of the period-but it’s a look at English rather than American life.
As I went through the Likenesses & Landskips exhibition the other day, I was reminded of how little respect some of the masterpieces of American painting in this period were given years ago. When I started to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a long time ago, most of the museum’s marvelous collection of Copley portraits used to hang on the walls of a grim corridor that led to the men’s restroom. The walls were painted an institutional green and the lighting was, well, shadowy. We’ve come a long way since then, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few of the portraits in the current show end up in some of our best museum collections.
Meanwhile, Likenesses & Landskips remains on view at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, through Feb. 8.