It will be noted, from the examples in Part One, that early American painting possesses a certain folk art , even primitive, quality. We must keep in mind the fact that the European art of this period – the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and prior – had a glorious artistic heritage to draw upon, starting with the statuary and sculpture of antiquity, followed by the vivid imagery evoked in the West by the doctrines and rich lore of Christianity.
In addition, there was little if any professional caliber instruction available to aspiring artists in colonial America. Reproductions of the great masterpieces of Europe could be seen only in the engravings that were circulated at the time in the colonies. These would have reproduced the outline of each work and not the color – no color!
Both of the above works are housed in the Vatican Museums.
The Laocoon was discovered buried beneath a Roman vineyard. Michelangelo was present as it was gradually unearthed. I have a picture in my mind of his standing there. eyes wide with amazement, as this masterpiece was revealed to the world.
This striking image of the Genius of the Age provides a neat segue into the Renaissance:
Saw this painting for the first time yesterday and fell in love with it at once. The chubby, blissfully dozing little baby, his beautiful mother, robed in red and blue, adoring her little offspring as new mothers will do, the clouds above her curving around a to the left and almost seeming to form a halo…
Talk about getting sidetracked!
Anyway, American art of the pre-Revolutionary period seems positively quaint when compared to masterpieces like the above. This is not to say, however that it does not possess its own unique virtues:
There is a certain piquancy in the way these characters peer out at us from their two-dimensional space. The children are especially charming.
Yet it seems almost miraculous to go from the above to this full-blooded, beautifully rounded portrait of Henry Pelham:
Henry Pelham was the half-brother of John Singleton Copley, the first great painter to emerge from the Colonies.