Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2017
Susan Rather The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 316 pp.; 100 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 ( 9780300214611)
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The Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand makes a bold declaration at the end of Susan Rather’s The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era. Admiring European pictures during a tour abroad, Durand nonetheless hungers for “a sight of the signboards in the streets of New York” (242). He would have relished the stunning cover of Rather’s book, which reproduces five jaunty top hats from a nineteenth-century hatters’ signboard.

This detail is an apt metaphor for The American School, which follows the careers of five painters (and a cast of supporting artists and writers) through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British and North American world. Several of them figure high in the canon of American art history: John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart, each of whom left North America to build careers abroad in Great Britain (only Stuart returned, after long stays in London and Dublin). The others—Matthew Pratt and William Williams—are lesser known, but Rather gives rich consideration to each individual, examining the many hats they metaphorically donned to negotiate their “status.” Within this excellent study, which offers a sustained and detailed consideration of the fluidity that characterized artistic professions within a transatlantic context, “status” signifies a range of possibilities, from artistic identity and social position to cultural affiliation and national history. Rather’s insistence on the “instability of professional status and the changing strategies by which artists sought to secure it” (8) distances her book from scholarship of earlier generations, which sought to fix a genealogy for artists of the founding era (as in James T. Flexner’s influential book of 1939, America’s Old Masters: First Artists of the New World).

The subtlety of Rather’s argument may not be apparent from the title—The American School—which, to readers unfamiliar with the references it connotes, might seem to advance an exceptionalist history of American art. Nothing could be further from what the book delivers. The American School takes its name from a celebrated painting of the same title made in 1765 by a young Pratt, who was completing several years of study in West’s London studio. The picture, in other words, posits the emergence of an American artistic practice that takes shape in a place far beyond the geographical extent of North America. Similarly, Rather’s book neither argues for American uniqueness, nor does it reduce colonial art to a provincial mimicry of British culture. Instead, it draws out the nascent character of American and British art during the late Enlightenment era as it illuminates a dynamic of mutual interchange. Rather tracks the Bristol-born Williams to Pennsylvania and follows the aspirational gaze of West to burgeoning London, where colonials “had the possibility of affecting” English professional practices still in formation—and confidently assumed they would exercise such an impact (235).

The result of this approach is a welcome contribution to studies of British and American art, one that, significantly, emphasizes the permeability of artistic fields that tend to be taught as separate histories. Readers may be more accustomed to marking distinctions between British, British colonial, and post-revolutionary American art, especially around the political split of 1776. In Rather’s approach, the American Revolution features most noticeably as an absence that occurs “largely off-stage” (4) and therefore does not interrupt the continuities developed across the two halves of her study. Part 1 explores the 1760s; part 2 turns to the early American republic. Throughout, Rather keeps step with recent historical and literary scholarship that has traced the Britishness of American culture into the nineteenth century, demonstrating that “what was American about American artists” (235) defied explanation for decades (Rather’s phrase is a canny twist on an old aphorism of Americanist scholarship).

Rather describes her format as case studies, and some content may read as familiar, for portions of each of the six chapters have appeared in the form of articles. Yet the book is much more the sum of its parts. Rather has refined and amplified her earlier work, weaving in new material and linking the chapters to develop a thesis that is commanding in breadth as well as depth. Chapter 1 centers on Copley, whose illusionistic talents have long attracted admiration. Rather draws an engrossing contrast between Copley’s remarkable oil painting of Paul Revere (1768) and his own self-portrait, rendered in pastel. Whereas Revere appears as an artisan or mechanic—albeit, a thinking man’s artisan, wherein mind is emphasized over hand—Copley fashions himself as a gentleman, distancing himself from the rank of laborer. Nevertheless, Rather sees in Paul Revere a “surrogate self-portrait” in which “Copley dared to be more honest about the virtues of artisanry than he was in his contemporaneous self-portrait” (47, 48).

Williams, the subject of chapter 2, was every bit as ambitious as Copley, but his motivation was of a different order: more experimental, as Rather beautifully shows, so that he undertook landscapes, conversation pieces, and theatrical scene painting. Rather’s description of the ornamental artifice of Williams’s portraits demonstrates the range of tastes that excited patrons beyond Copley’s Boston. Notable too is Rather’s attention to the local circumstances to which Williams adapted: in Manhattan, he pitched himself to the city’s lingering Dutch population with a signboard of Rembrandt’s head. Rather extracts as much as she can about Williams from a fairly slim record, but I wished to learn even more about Williams’s youthful servitude aboard a ship in the triangle trade and a stint among the plantation cultures of the West Indies. How might such experiences have shaped the painting he later undertook in northern slaveholding cities?

West forms a connective tissue throughout the book. Chapter 3 begins exploring the ways West fashioned himself abroad—and found himself represented by devotees as well as critics. Rather expands upon her influential article about Pratt’s The American School (Susan Rather, “A Painter’s Progress: Matthew Pratt and The American School,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 28 (1993): 169–83) to consider what “American” meant to colonials in metropolitan London. West, for one, bent himself to the term even as he sought to lead an emerging English school of art. Most striking is Rather’s interpretation of a self-portrait sketched in Italy, which she understands as West’s anxious effort to model his persona on examples as vaunted as Anthony van Dyke and Raphael. By the time West collaborated on his biography—a subject of chapter 6—with the writer John Galt, he had a firmer sense of how he wanted history to remember him: as an American. With refreshing directness and humor, Rather interrogates Galt’s intentions as closely as West’s, rejecting Galt’s claim that The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816) was really autobiography (“We should not believe him,” 221) and exposing West’s orthographic mishaps (West wrote that history painting demanded “the greates cear & intelegance amaginable,” 223).

Chapters 4 and 5 add novel dimensions to these accounts of artistic strivings. Chapter 4, which examines writing about artists, initially cuts a dry contrast to the rewarding discussions of paintings elsewhere in the book. But read on, for Rather enriches the art history of the early republic, plumbing a body of texts that simply have not been reckoned with—anecdotes about painters and satirical writings penned by fictional artists—and bringing to light the fascinating character of Harry Crosswell, the editor of a partisan newspaper in Hudson, New York, who nettled the conventions of political and visual representation through a series of essays issued as “Peter Pallet.” In addition to offering a fresh analysis of the term “limner”—a dated if persistently vexing word in the lexicon of American art—Rather rightly underscores the rewards of these texts, which “demonstrate the extent to which allegories of the professional practice of portraiture could be effective as a political discourse” (142). Chapter 5 turns to Stuart, who rebelled against the gentlemanly status that West and Copley worked so hard to construct. Rather emphasizes the performativity of Stuart’s contrary posturing, revealing how early national artists positioned themselves against each other as well as their British contemporaries.

Given the impressive amount of ground that Rather covers, readers may wonder how the book opens up other areas for study. Here one might consider artists not highlighted, in particular women and people of color, whose “severely limited paths to professional standing,” Rather explains, mean they play “only minor roles” in the book (6). Yet how might further scholarship on miniaturist Polly Rench or the mixed-race portraitist Joshua Johnson test the privileged notions of status that West and Copley not only flexed, but arguably reified? Likewise, how might we look not only ahead to the later nineteenth century—as Rather does in her conclusion—but also back to the earlier eighteenth and even seventeenth centuries, periods chocked with British colonial artists and pictures that merit fuller study than they have received? The American School will join other prominent studies of early American art published in 2016 (by scholars including Zara Anishanslin [Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World, New Haven: Yale University Press], Jane Kamensky [A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, New York: W. W. Norton], and Paul Staiti [Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes, London: Bloomsbury]) as required reading for anyone seeking to excavate the complexities of acting as a British colonial artist in a place that was not Britain—or negotiating one’s Americanness for a place that was not yet America.

Wendy Bellion
Professor and Sewell Biggs Chair in American Art History, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

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