During the reign of King George III, when the town of Boston had scarcely more than eighteen thousand inhabitants, there hung in the library of Harvard University a copy of the Cardinal Bentivoglio by Van Dyck, painted by John Smybert, the first English artist of any note who settled for any length of time in New England. This picture served a number of young American painters as a chief object of inspiration, Copley, Trumbull, Wilson Peale, and Allston copying it in turn, and may, in this respect, be regarded as the first impetus to the foundation of original American art.
This fact is significant enough to show the conditions of art resources at the time when young Copley in Boston and the Quaker boy in Philadelphia made their first ventures in the world and their profession. In our day of constant interchange, it seems hard to realize the position of a painter in the eighteenth century. There was absolutely no art friction in the atmosphere; the few artists who had achieved anything like excellence, as Malbone, the miniaturist, E. Savage, F. V. Doornick, O. A. Bullard, Pine, the Englishmen Blackburn and Williams, and Cosmo Alexander, the teacher of Stuart could diffuse their sentiments, opinions, and experiences only in the most limited of circles. Exhibitions were unknown, and the patronage of the few families who were no longer brought face to face with the elementary problems of existence was confined to portraiture.
The majority of painters of this period, as well as that of the early part of the nineteenth century, were traveling artists who went forth over the country, painting portraits or signboards, decorations for stagecoaches and fire engines, or whatever else they could find to do for practice and living. The talented artist, who felt a soul struggling within him, was forced to let it expand with no help from his surroundings, indeed in most instances, with the very meagerest of mechanical resources.
The New England states, although opposed to art on principle, were after all that part of the country in which signs of literary and artistic activity became first apparent in sporadic and individual cases. The growth of our art, however, was rather handicapped than benefited by these conditions. The “royalists,” the only ones who could afford the luxury of art, had left the country, and the rest of the population, forced to wrest from fate the right of existence, were too busy with their material welfare to feel anything but indifference for those few assertions of poetic sentiment that now and then appeared on the surface of public life. In the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, our art life was still utterly insignificant. The joint endeavor to pass to styles more naturalistic and poetical, to endow American art with traits distinctly original, was made during the following fifty years. It was a hard struggle, many mistakes were made, and although the artists wished to rely entirely upon their own technical resources, they never succeeded in freeing themselves from the imitation of foreign conventionalities. Only after years of dilettantism were they wise enough to study more advanced foreign styles and develop those complete methods which sustain our present art.
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