Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

2
Reading Eighteenth-Century American Family Portraits

Social Images and Self-Images

MARGARETTA M. LOVELL

Combining close visual analysis of eighteenth-century American and British portraits with insight into social attitudes and practices, Margaretta Lovell extends our understanding of the group family portrait as a primary document in the history of American colonial culture. Lovell departs from familiar historical accounts of early American art that tend to attribute the greater naturalism and complexity of composition in many late eighteenth-century American group portraits to either individual artistic achievement or increased technical mastery among colonial painters as a group. Instead, she suggests a more complex reading of these images as embodiments of a variable social order in which evolving conceptions of gender and family relations generate new kinds of pictorial arrangements.

Lovell argues that both the growing interest in family group (as opposed to individual) portraits and the shift from a rigidly patriarchal model of the family to one structured around animated children and motherhood as the center of domestic harmony signal an altered sense of values and beliefs about the nature of the family and the meaning of childhood. These patterns are traced through the gradual modification of portrait conventions that actively contributed to a new social consensus regarding gender and family dynamics.

In 1772 London-based American artist Benjamin West painted a portrait of his family. It is one of about fifty group portraits by American artists surviving from the eighteenth century. The image includes the artist himself at the extreme right, his elder son, Raphael, by the window, the seated figures of his father and half brother, and, on the left, his wife and infant son. The artist has portrayed himself and Raphael in complementary leaning poses and in similar plum-colored clothing, the two seated Quakers are dressed in somber brown and black, and all the men direct our eyes--by their gestures, poses, and gazes-- toward the brightly lit maternal group. In many ways this posed vignette portraying three generations of one family confirms our expectations of an eighteenth-century domestic group. But the visual emphasis on the maternal pair--enthroned in a generous, damask-covered easy chair--seems slightly hyperbolic or at least disproportionate given the dignity one would ordinarily attribute to the patriarch or to the meteorically successful artist himself. Observation of other late eighteenth-century family portraits confirms this "matricentric" pictorial arrange

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