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Early American Art History

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  • 0:03 Art in Early America
  • 1:20 First Attempts at Portraiture
  • 2:21 The Next Generation of…
  • 3:42 Beginning of American…
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Who were the first American artists? What kind of art, if any, hung in early homes? In this lesson, learn about some of our first portrait painters and sculptors, as well as other facts about early American art history.

Art in Early America

Before we explore the art, I want to outline the time frame for this lesson. We'll be discussing art created by early American-born colonists who pursued creative activities before 1800.

European settlers and colonists began arriving in large numbers in North America in the 1600s. They brought some goods with them as necessities but not much artwork from their prior lives. They worked hard to build new communities in the new world. As they slowly grew more prosperous, they began to make and purchase art objects that reflected their aspirations and growing families.

It wasn't easy to pursue a career as an artist in Colonial America. The first few limners, or painters, were largely self-trained and of greatly varying ability. They were often itinerant, meaning they traveled from place to place and made a living by doing many different things, including portraits, decorative panels for homes, and sometimes signs for businesses and hostels. Early American silversmiths and furniture makers followed European forms and models but also struggled to make a living. Very few people attempted sculptural works other than pieces that also served a practical or decorative purpose, like wooden ship figureheads, carved forms of people or animals that were mounted to the front, or prow, of a sailing ship.

First Attempts at Portraiture

Most early American paintings are portraits, and we can imagine that early families wanted to document their growing status in their new country. One example of an early American painting is a Portrait of Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary. An unidentified painter created it for the family of John Freake, a wealthy Boston merchant, and also painted a companion portrait of him.

Let's look at this work more closely. Mother and child are well dressed. Their clothing features lots of lace as well as deep, rich colors. Mrs. Freake wears a piece of jewelry around her wrist. Such details suggest that the family was prosperous. The artist paid a lot of attention to detail in lacy collars but his rendering of the people isn't as strong. They are appealing but you don't get a sense of them as real people in three dimensions. There's little shadow or attempt to render facial expressions. But the sitters were probably pleased with them, and this artist gained other commissions. Several other paintings in very similar style exist in the Boston area, probably painted by the same artist.

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