INTRODUCTION TO WILLIAM DUNLAP'S HISTORY OF THE RISE AND PROGRESS OF THE ARTS OF DESIGN IN THE UNITED STATES

If, as in neo-classical (or sentimental) moods I like to imagine, there exists an American Muse, surely that then very young lady intervened actively in two opening events of American culture: the creation of the portrait Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, and the writing of Dunlap History. Limned by an anonymous hand in the first decade of known American painting--the 1660s--the Freake portrait set our art off with a brilliant beginning. It was a work of such touching beauty that almost a century was to pass before there appeared on these shores another picture of equivalent charm. And Dunlap's book, in 1834 the first published history of American art, demonstrated, for later generations to ponder, the many delights that can spring from a felicitous marriage between art history and literary skid.

Dunlap was himself a painter, who had shared in the excitements about which he wrote, and who was personally acquainted, often intimately, with many of the men whose careers he so evocatively described. However, his greater gift was as a writer. An author-producer, he composed some fifty plays, many of which found permanence in print. He had also completed a history of the American theater and various biographies when, at the age of sixty-six, he set to work on his history of the arts of design.

That he is sometimes styled "the American Vasari" is apposite enough, since Dunlap worked in the manner which was practiced by that sixteenth-century Italian chronicler and which was continued by

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, repr. ed. ( New York: Dover, 1964), pp. vii-xvi.

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