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American Portrait Paintings

Portrait of Hugh Henderson
American School
Portrait of Hugh Henderson
Late 18th century


Portraiture is perhaps the most common subject in American painting. The market is rich with examples from the 19th century, and some from as early as the 18th century can be found. Quality varies widely, from weak amateur efforts to elegantly stylized folk portraiture; and from lifeless academic paintings to insightful character studies.
American portraits, as opposed to their British and European counterparts, are most often described as frank, direct and unpretentious likenesses; qualities which reflect the American character.

A portrait represents the desire of either the sitter or his or her loved ones to record a specific appearance at a certain moment in time; one that will not age with the person and that will live on in the subject’s absence. Not infrequently, the sitter was actually deceased when the painting was executed. Portraits also serve as reminders of ancestry, and emblems of financial success, as well as a record of one’s place within a community.


Portrait of Nathan Drury
Ira Chaffee Goodell
Portrait of Nathan Drury
1831



Portraiture in America reached the height of its popularity in the 1830’s, although it began in the 17th century and certainly endures today. Most American portraits are painted in oil on canvas or other fabric, although portraits on wood panels, planking, cardboard, academy board, and glass can also be found. Watercolor or pastels on paper, or cardboard was also used frequently on medium sized images.


Figures by a River
Francis Luis Mora
Figures by a River
Circa 1920

Most portraits are of a single individual, although group portraiture and figurative paintings containing portraits of specific people certainly exist throughout American art history. These multiple portrait paintings command a premium due to their rarity and the element of narrative they introduce to the painting.

Dating is primarily based on stylistic grounds, as well as the general condition of the painting. Only on examples from the late 19th or early 20th century can you expect to find a date. There are certainly exceptions, however. Mourning portraits, especially, may contain a date, even when the artist is not identified.

The value of a portrait reflects the ability of the artist to describe something of the personality or psychology of the sitter, as well as the skill to effortlessly manipulate the medium to aesthetic advantage.

Provenance is of great importance: we are aware that a real and unique person is the subject of the painting and the identity of the sitter, if known, is almost always traced through its history of ownership. The provenance may establish the location where the portrait was painted and help to fill in the history of the picture and narrow the search for the artist who executed it.


Portrait of Miss Susan Hall
Thomas Sully
Portrait of Miss Susan Hall
1837



Some well-known European-trained American artists, such as Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley experienced exceptional success in the British academic art market, as well as among wealthy Colonial Americans, and their careers and bodies of work are well documented. Their paintings, along with those of Charles Willson Peale and members of the Peale family, fetch prices in the high six or even seven figures at auction. If a sitter is securely identified, but especially if he or she is of historic interest, the painting will be especially sought after. Paintings of American forefathers and other historically important and easily recognizable individuals are the most prized.


Portrait Miniature of a Gentleman
American School
Portrait Miniature of a Gentleman
19th century

Portrait miniatures, on the other hand, are among the most personal and intimate of art forms. The image of a loved one, minutely painted in watercolor on ivory, parchment or paper, most commonly encased in a metal and glass oval, were meant to be hung in a small space, held in one’s hand, worn as jewelry, or hidden in a pocket. Often the back of a miniature will display a lock of the loved one’s hair. Small-scale rectangular paintings are also considered miniatures. The art form came to America from Britain and Europe. Today American portrait miniatures are relatively rare, as they required a high level of artistic skill and craftsmanship as well as excellent eyesight to execute. Many miniatures are actually mourning portraits; the effort of a living person to hold onto to the image of their beloved after death.

The appeal of portraiture broadened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with a rapidly expanding new nation. Middle class people, as well as wealthy citizens, eager to define both their identity and place within the new Republic, sat for their portraits, many before "plain" or "folk" artists. By the mid 19th century, the average American sitting room was hung with the painted images of family members, much in the way that modern day American living rooms contain photographic portraits of family.


Portrait of Rhoda Bennett Couch
Ammi Phillips
Portrait of Rhoda Bennett Couch
ca. 1829-1834

The modern appeal of folk portraiture is no doubt influenced by our response to the almost abstract qualities of many folk paintings. The best examples retain the essence of the sitter’s personality and appear to communicate directly with us, the viewer, as well as having a strong graphic quality.

Scholars, from evidence in the archives of historical societies and from stylistic analysis, have painstakingly reconstructed the careers of more than one hundred self-taught portrait painters who worked in the first half of the 19th century. Some fine self-taught painters have yet to be identified. We do not know, and may never know, the identity of many artists who have executed wonderful portraits. On the other hand, mediocre portraits, by both academically pretentious and self-taught 19th century artists abound and fail to interest most collectors.

After the advent of photography in the 1840's, painted portraiture once again was for wealthy clients, as a painted image was far more costly than a daguerreotype "likeness." Folk art painters who persisted in their profession tended to compete with the camera to be “realistic” and the unique folk art qualities of their work that are so admired today suffered as a result. However, the traditions of formal academic portraiture endured and sitting for one's portrait remained a status symbol among wealthy clientele.

The founding of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1825, as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in 1805, were essential in promoting formal art training in 19th century America. By 1876, the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was another important center for academic training. Successful 19th century businessmen and socialites commissioned painted portraits, that were often vacuous and lacking in aesthetic value.

Despite the growth of art schools in the U.S., in the late 19th century, American artists flocked to Europe to study art. Paris, the leading center of world culture in the 19th century, was the most compelling destination for thousands of Americans who crossed the Atlantic to study art.


Portrait of a Seated Young Lady
De Witt McClellan Lockman
Portrait of a Seated Young Lady
Late 19th/early 20 Century

In general, American artists' techniques differed from their best-known French counterparts of this period. Perhaps insecure about their relatively meager training, still eager to learn the skills of the Parisian academy and acceptance within the salon system, American artists tended to remain within mainstream art. Most American "Impressionists" painted with greater attention to composition, anatomy, and local color than did their French counterparts. However, informal portraiture, where the subject is placed in an everyday setting and portrayed as though caught by an unseen observer, became prevalent among American artists, in keeping with the new ways that the French Impressionists observed the natural world.

Scholars have traditionally prized the images of individuals painted by artists who manage to convey not only the outward presence of a specific person but their state of mind as well. The majority of American portraits, however, do not succeed in penetrating outward appearances, which may account for the lacuna in scholarly interest in the subject. However, interest in psychological nuance had started by the mid 19th century in the work of the quintessentially American and much revered painters Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer and others.

In the United States by the late 1800's, artists such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent were redefining American portrait painting by their attention to psychological nuance, and by their technical bravura.

In the twentieth century, the work of Robert Henri, Raphael Soyer, and other realist painters followed the artistic traditions of Eakins and Sargent, striving to convey the complexity of the human being before them.


Portrait of the Artist's Mother
Frederick William MacMonnies
Portrait of the Artist's Mother
Early 20th century

There are also issues beyond history, provenance, and psychological penetration that affect the popularity of portraiture, whether by an academically trained artist or folk artist who worked from the 17th to the 20th centuries. That is, the artificial hierarchy that has governed acceptance and evaluation of American portraits: the age and appearance of the sitter. These issues have tended to be intertwined with the assessment of a portrait’s “quality”. Children and attractive young women always sell better and therefore have higher economic value than even attractive young men and older gentlemen. Unattractive women, and especially, elderly women, are the least sought after. The market is saturated with pairs of less than appealing older couples and younger women who must have gone through life as wallflowers, despite the success of the painter in depicting the sitter’s internal life. Adorable young children, especially ones fondling a pet dog, cat, doll, flower, or pull-toy are always in demand.

This hierarchy of youth and beauty exists for both academic and folk art portraiture. Only the post-Freudian psychological interests of modern artists have truly changed the criteria by which American portraits are valued, shifting the focus to the psychological complexity of the individual depicted on canvas, whether young or old, homely or attractive.