A 1765 oil on canvas by Matthew Pratt (1734-1805). Pratt sits at his easel, and his teacher and friend, Benjamin West, stands at the far left holding paint brushes.
Susan F. Craft
During the 1600s in the American colonies, not many people had enough wealth to extensively cultivate the fine arts. The few artists who lived in the colonies during the early years of settlement had attended or apprenticed in schools of art in Europe, and were heavily influenced by Renaissance styles.
By the early 1700s, wealthy families hired painters, referred to as “limners,” to paint portraits of their families. Limners were among the first to record glimpses of life in colonial America. These limners, mostly self-taught, generally unknown by name, turned out naive portraits in the Elizabethan style, the Dutch baroque style, or the English baroque court style, depending upon the European background of both artist and patron.
Many limners painted miniatures -- tiny watercolor portraits -- on pieces of ivory, often oval-shaped. These were commonly worn as jewelry. Limners also painted on paper and canvas and earned, on average, $15 per portrait.
Like most artisans of their time who found it difficult to support themselves with paintings only, they also worked in pewter, silver, glass, or textiles or took jobs doing ornamental painting of clocks, furniture, signs, coaches, and landscapes.
Portraiture was the most important form of painting during the Colonial period, but rather than a true portrait, the paintings were idealistic and did not present a true representation of the personality of the sitter and were often two dimensional. Artists focused on the material wealth of the subject, giving much attention to their clothing and accessories. Some artists painted only the faces of their subjects, explaining that they need not bother with tedious sittings, and that they would paint the bodies and clothing later. They would show their subjects English and French prints from which to choose whatever costumes they preferred.
Limners Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe became celebrated painters of furniture. Famous portrait artists included Joseph Blackburn, Peter Pelham, John Smibert, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull and Charles Wilson Peale. An American painter, Benjamin West, became painter to the king and president of the Royal Academy in London. American painters flocked to his studio to learn under his tutelage, including Gilbert Stuart.
Colonial limners kept supplies of pigments which they mixed to create watercolors, oil, and tempera paints. Watercolors consisted of pigment and chalk. Oil paints were a mixture of pigment and linseed oil. Tempera paints were a mixture of pigments, lime, and milk.
Pigments were derived from white lead, zinc oxide, mercuric sulfide, iron oxide-containing clay and Paris green, a poisonous compound made of green copper and arsenic. Artists also used Prussian blue, a blue iron pigment. Limners sometimes made their own brushes, but could buy them from merchants as well. Brushes were made of quills from geese, ducks, and crows. Red sable-tipped brushes were often used for watercolor paintings, as were squirrel-hair quill brushes. They would have afforded limners working on a miniature the ability to create fine lines. Boar's bristles, widely used for a variety of tools, were likely used for paintbrushes, as they are today. Boar's bristle paintbrushes are most commonly used for oil paintings.
Artist’s color box (Harvard Art Museum)
Artists stored their pigments and paints in color boxes a sort of antique backpack--wooden boxes with hinges attaching the top to the bottom. The bottom half of the box served as a storage place for paint materials, and the lid served as a palette. A leather shoulder strap was attached for easy transport.
In 1754 in British colonial New York, an artist took out the following ad in the Gazette and the Weekly Post: Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, just arrived from London with Capt. Miller, hereby acquaints all Gentlemen and Ladies inclined to favour him in having their pictures drawn, that he don't doubt of pleasing them in taking a true Likeness, and finishing the Drapery in a proper Manner, as also in the Choice of Attitudes, suitable to each Person's Age and Sex, and giving agreeable Satisfaction, as he has heretofore done to Gentlemen and Ladies in London. He may at present be apply'd to at his Lodgings, at Mr. Bogart's near the New Printing-Office in Beaver-Street.