XVII. PROGRESS IN THE ARTS.
American art, like American letters, was of slow and difficult growth. The early colonists, even those who, like the Virginia cavaliers and the settlers in Maryland, possessed somewhat of the old-world culture and taste, had little time for the ornamental. To worry a decent living out of an inhospitable and reluctant soil, and to serve God after their strict and severe fashion, were abundant occupation to the Puritans. Therefore, could we carry ourselves back through the generations and find ourselves in the streets and abodes of colonial New England, we should observe but very few and slight attempts at decoration.
Pictures, unless it were now and then a scriptural or historical print, there would be none on the plain walls with their heavy beams; varnishing and frescoing would be but rare vanities, if indeed such could be anywhere discovered at all; as for rare vases, or bronzes, or marbles, such things were assuredly unknown. The austere simplicity of the place, the people, and the age, forbade not only a footing to the arts, but refused all nurture to imaginative growths. The Puritans especially had the lofty scorn of art which resented the idea of a picture or a statue in a church with as much indignation as they would have shown to the Pope had he invited them to return to the fold of Rome.
[John Singleton Copley.]
As there was very little literature for America to be proud of before the Declaration of Independence, so, in casting our eyes backward over the annals of art, we can discover but one notable native artist in the period between the early settlements and the Revolution. This was John Singleton Copley. He was born in Boston in 1738, and became the pupil of Smybert, an English artist of some talent, who had accompanied Bishop Berkeley across the Atlantic and had settled in Boston. The pupil soon eclipsed the master, and for years Copley stood alone as a popular portrait-painter in New England.
But even the monopoly of his profession did not suffice to give him adequate support, or gratify Copley's ambition; and he was forced to seek in a more art-loving land the full recognition and reward of his genius. He left behind him many portraits which still exist as precious heirlooms in New England families, and just as the storm of the Revolution was gathering, he set sail for the mother country, which he never afterward left. Before he went, however, a son had been born to him in Boston, who was destined long after to reach the highest summit of English legal dignity and rank - Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst. Copley was especially great as a portrait-painter, but he also sometimes adopted historical subjects. Of these the best known is his "Death of Lord Chatham," which now hangs in the South Kensington Museum, in London.
Copley was soon succeeded by an American artist whose triumphs in England afterward far outshone his own. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania in 1738, and was the youngest of nine children, of Quaker parents. His genius for art was discovered in an amusing way. When he was seven sears old he was put to the task of fanning the flies away from the sleeping baby of one of his sisters. Instead of doing so, he sketched her face with black and red ink. His mother snatched the paper from him, looked at it with amazement, and exclaimed: "I declare, he has made a likeness of little Sally." From the Indians be got some of the pigments with which they smeared their faces, and his mother's indigo bag supplied him with blue; while from the house cat's tail he took the hair for his brushes. West was well known as a portrait-painter at fifteen. His Quaker friends at first demurred at the vanity of his calling: but in a solemn meeting the spirit happily moved them to bless him and consecrate him to art. He found rich patrons, who sent him to Italy, where he studied the great masters with zeal and enthusiasm.
[Royal Academy Founded.]
This sojourn in the favored land of art, and the chance which procured him an introduction to King George III. as he was passing through England on his way home, deprived his native country of this famous artist. Received and petted at the English court, he took up his permanent residence in London. There, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and encouraged by the king, he founded the Royal Academy, of which he became president; and as long as King George retained his mind, West was constantly in the sunshine of royal favor. He was appointed "Painter to His Majesty," and a splendid income rewarded his labors. He was neglected by the Prince of Wales, but was recompensed for the loss of his court associations by the patronage of the nobles and people. Copley and West were the forerunners of a succession of American portrait- painters not inferior in their art to their European contemporaries. Both Copley and West aspired to something higher and more creative than copying the lineaments of human faces, but it may be said of them that in historical and imaginative painting they fell short of the highest standard.
[Peale, Stuart, and Trumbull.]