tv American Artifacts CSPAN September 27, 2015 10:00pm-10:29pm EDT
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handling. >> each week, american history tv's american artifacts visit s museums and historic places. the national gallery of art was a gift to the american people from financier andrew mellon who served as treasury secretary until 1932. up next, we visit the museum to learn about early american portrait painting and work of john singleton copley. dianne: hello. we are standing in a room full a portrait by john singleton copley, america's most important colonial portrait painter. i think as we look around the room, you can think back to the words of john adams 1817 who said when you see his portraits, you want a discourse with him,
you want to ask him questions and receive answers. let me give you some background. in the early part of the 18th century, american early painters without much background and training made ambitious but tentative likenesses onture canvas because portraiture was really the only way to do that. it was the most important type of painting in the colonies. there was a great flourishing of activity that became elevated to a level of international acclaim. west are our first two high-level portrait painters. unfortunately in some ways, but fortunately in others, west left
early in his career to england to study in england where he had a incredibly successful career. he became the portrait painter to the king. copley stayed in boston for the first 20 years of his career. he eventually left and went to study with west, but we have 20 years of copley portrays to look at first. let's start with this one of f. sergeant, a 70-year-old new englander. he was a wealthy merchant who lived in gloucester, massachusetts. by the time he died, he owned gloucester.ster -- you get the sense of a man who has done well, happy with this -- his position in life. copley has given us a
them -- more than just a representation of his features, but we have a sense of his status and his feeling about himself. copley has a great attention to detail. he does not leave anything out. he has the mole under the left eye there. his somewhat wrinkled skin is portrayed. the fact that he is bursting filling out his jacket. , and the hand he has in front him, gilbert stewart the american painter said later about that hand, speaking of the realism, that the hand is so realistically painted with no effort to make it pretty. here you see that he is leaning
on an antique column. there were not many of those in the 1760's. it's evident that copley gets much of his training from the fact that his father was an engraver and he had access to engravings from europe. this compositional idea probably came from that. i love to look at this. it must be his waistcoat showing through, the little gold here. he is dressed very conservatively in very simple cloth but you have the gold brocade coming through. it is a wonderful painting. he was a harvard graduate and if you look across the room, this is the same man painted 12 years later by his classmate. little did they think they would be hanging together in this gallery.
this is also a new hampshire -- i think he owned land in new hampshire and was a massachusetts merchant and political figure. he was 82 when this was painted and copley has shown him as he was. you will notice the way he painted the face and hands. a little different. this is 12 years later. copley has changed his technique, so the hands are painted with a little more fluid paint and the face as well. it's easier to show the details. copley is changing and developing as he goes along through his career in boston. copley's portraits of men show these very substantial figures who looked comfortable in their setting and you have a sense that these two men had successful lives and that they were in a good place. his paintings of women sometimes are just so beautiful in their
attention to fabric and texture and the beauty of the skin like this portrait of ann fairchild bowler. this was painted in 1762, about the same time as he was painting sergeant, but it is a totally different approach. look at the beauty of the fabric and the garland of flowers she is holding. you can see his training and engraving and fine detail. she is shown with a column in a very classical setting that he probably saw in european engravings. there is an interesting story to this woman. she was married to metcalfe bowler. he was very wealthy. he accumulated a huge amount of wealth in the shipping industry and they had a home in newport.
he was very active in political affairs. he was a judge. in 1763, he had a few related so so muchd accumulated wealth that they retired to their country estate in new hampshire where they had 70 acres of which were , 11 devoted to green houses and gardens. they were happily living on the estate in new hampshire. but the war came along and the british soldiers ravished the estate. his income from shipping totally stopped and things got very hard for metcalfe. it was only discovered in the 20th century that at that point, he corresponded with general clinton, who was the british commander of the area. he wrote to him offering
intelligence in exchange for protection from the soldiers and some cash. this was not discovered until the 20th century when the clinton papers went to the library in ann arbor and this correspondence was discovered. it does not look like he got much assistance or protection or much cash because his circumstances were considerably reduced after the war. he had his wife moved to providence where they set up a shop. he became a shopkeeper. the question is, did she know about his traitorous activities? we don't know, but it does not take away from this beautiful portrait of this very confident, self-assured looking young woman. with her beautiful garland of flowers and beautiful place sleeves. another portrait in this room of a woman by copley is this one of
abigail smith babcock, the wife of another wealthy merchant, who was not a spy. he was a patriot and he provided ships and assistance to the revolutionary troops. she is shown in this beautiful , very stylish dress. you often see it in white but this style that comes from ancient greece or turkish andions of the empire waist gold and pearl belt that she is wearing. she has that incredible tape which makes you think, was that hers or was that something copley used in his studio? we don't know but he did paint many people in a cape like that. she is holding a beautiful garnet bracelet and she is
holding onto the clasp and the beads. you will see as we go to the gallery that many times, the husband and wife were painted or children were painted. these were family portraits or efforts to portray the entire family. they would have been the only way of recording a likeness because photography was not available yet. they were probably hung in the homes unless they were commissioned for a statehouse or something like that. these are personal that we are looking at. copley lived on beacon hill in boston. he had a lucrative business as a portrait painter. i do remember he painted her husband as well, mr. adam babcock. these paintings were done in 1774, some of the last ones copley painted before he left
boston for europe. he had a lucrative practice. i think in 1774, he knew tories and patriots. he worked amongst both and he got tired of the turmoil. it became not particularly lucrative because nobody was thinking about having a portrait made when the revolutionary activities were becoming so prevalent. he decided this was the time to go. amazingly enough, he left his wife and four children in boston and went to england and then italy to study. his wife met him in england but when he left, i don't think that was necessarily the plan. activities became so turbulent here that he decided it was safer for her to come to england so she came with her father.
as i said, copley in 1774 decided it was time to leave boston and go to europe to study. he had been encouraged by benjamin west to come for years. he finally decided the revolution is coming. things are not good for portraiture in boston. i think it is time to go. he went to england briefly and net with west. and then he went to italy to study for a year. his wife and four children were left behind with her father and they eventually joined him in london. when copley came back to london after his year in italy, he was so pleased to be reunited with his family he painted this , portrait in celebration of that reunion. this is copley in the back holding some sheets of paper and his family in the foreground. his wife with his young son and
his father-in-law is holding the youngest child, the recently born baby. there is an interesting story about that and the other two girls. they are ostensibly in the home on leicester square that richard clarke owned. the background is kind of an landscape background copley must have learned how to do while he was in italy. when copley learned that his , he saidcome to london she came with three of the children. he asked which one she left behind. it must have been the youngest one because he was so delicate. she left her youngest son behind and he died in january and never came to england. when copley started this painting of his family, the baby
would have been that child. but that child died and copley must have known his wife was expected in -- expecting another one, so he left the space for the child in the painting. one child is not here. his image of his wife reminds you of an italian madonna and again it betrays his study in italy for the year before he came. they are sitting in furniture that would've been in their home in london. richard clarke was a merchant in boston with tory leanings and it was his tea that had been dumped into the boston harbor for the boston tea party. it was his tea dumped into the
harbor, so he probably had good reason to leave for england. this whole idea of a group portrait is something new, much beyond what the early artists in america could do. it is the baroque idea of a portrait. it is a complicated idea to carry off and copley learned this while he was studying in england. in the room with copley portraits and this is another group portrait that he painted when he went to england. again, this is a very sophisticated effort on his part to capture a modern day history scene. something that actually happened. the painting was commissioned by brook watson when he was the lord mayor of london. this happened to him when he was a young man on a merchant ship.
they were outside of havana when he decided to go for a swim in the water and was attacked by a shark. and these are men coming to his rescue. he did lose his leg in this effort. life as a it in later way of dealing with adversity and conquering adversity. it was sort of a moral lesson. he commissioned the painting to show posterity he had been able to triumph over this great adversity of losing his leg to the shark. this was an amazing painting by copley who had obviously never seen a shark before. that shark has ears. let's look at this portrait by edward savage, another american painter who was self trained. copley would've said he was self
trained too, but he had his father-in-law to teach him and then he went to work with west in england. this is edward savage who was self trained and this painting was done in 1789, after the revolutionary war. we are in a new phase. this is washington with his family. very similar to the copley with his family but this is george washington who by this time is the central focus of life in america. he is seated with his family at mount vernon. it is george dressed in his revolutionary war uniform and martha washington dressed in beautiful gray satin with a lace shawl. george has his hand on the table in the center of the composition and his other arm is resting on his young ward and step grandchild who george and
martha called wash. nelly.is shown with these are martha's grandchildren, the children of her son jackie custis who died very early at age 26 of what might've been cabin fever, maybe typhoid. these children came to live with martha and george when he was president in philadelphia and in new york and then they came to mount vernon. they were very close, part of the family. george washington had high hopes for young wash but they did not quite work out. he was not ready to take on the kind of activities that george washington had hoped with government and all, but he has his arm resting on him and you can see young wash with his hand on the
globe. martha and nelly are holding a map and martha is pointing to something on the map which might be pennsylvania avenue or the grand avenue. something where the white house would be. the second is mount vernon, washington told the--washington's home 30 miles up the potomac. the unidentified black servant in the corner of the painting -- it's not known, it might be meant to portray washington's very devoted personal slave who was with him through the war. his name was will, william lee whom washington freed with his , will. his name was the second mentioned after martha. it may have just been to add or make it known that it was a virginia planter home.
the view up the potomac is for washington. it was a commission for a painting by savage. that is what led to this commission. i'm not sure where it hung. i think savage showed it and it was more -- i think it may have been something savage kept and allow people to see because people were so interested. it was the talk of philadelphia when it was being painted. everybody wanted to see it. george washington was so important and everyone wanted an image of him. every painter wanted to paint him and everyone wanted a copy of those paintings. this was popular and it was reproduced many times by print engravings. in fact it was engraved before , it was even finished because there are
engraved versions of it that show wash and nelly much younger than they were. then he went back and changed it because they had grown. they had grown in the few years time. he had to go back and repaint them so there are engraved , versions that are different. it is interesting. we will see nelly custis again in another room painted by stuart. there is another painting in this room by copley that i wanted to point out. we will see this young woman's husband in a later room, this is elizabeth gray, and she is painted in a very fantastic way. he has shown her as a shepherdess with a crook. flowers in her hair. this may have been a bridal portrait for her. samuel otis who was
the brother of james otis and mercy otis warren who were very prominent revolutionary advocates. mercy otis warren wrote in favor of american liberties and james otis was a politician who supported the revolution, as did his brother samuel. her husband. but her father, harrison gray painted, with a high tory and left for england when the revolution broke out. this painting ended up with her, so whether he left it with her as a way of remembering him, we don't know. but this is an instance of a family being torn apart by the revolutionary war. her father left for england, she stayed with her husband and family who supported the revolution. this painting was cut back at some point and cut down on the sides. you can see the tip of her
shepherd's crook was cut off and probably the tips of her fingers there on the bottom was cut off, perhaps even cutting off her hand. we do not know why it was cut back at some point. sometimes people did it just to make it fit a frame. in this room, there are many paintings by other american artists. the one i want to focus on is charles wilson peel. he is another person who painted washington many times. we don't have that here but we do have this interesting portrait of john doyle lee -- board late by peel. he was an energetic man who always had projects going. he made saddles and did metalwork. he was born in maryland and lived in annapolis.
he traveled back and forth to philadelphia and various places to do portraits. he decided he would do paintings. like copley he eventually went , to england and studied for a couple of years with benjamin west. benjamin west was an amazing figure who welcomed almost every painter we will talk about today except for savage. west was always welcoming and he never held anything back. he always told everything he knew, so he was willing to share everything he knew. this painting by charles wilson peel is a man who was a lawyer and a businessman in annapolis. he is one of the men who put money together in order to send charles to england to study with west. he and about 10 men put together funds in order to give peel a fellowship with benjamin west
and then he came back to paint in annapolis and eventually moved to philadelphia. this painting shows him in a very -- the message of this painting is the american colonies will not tolerate british control. the feeling was that britain was going back on her word. that american colonists were british citizens and should be treated as such. it shows two things, the abundance of the american colonies and this man's point was that americans could be economically self-sufficient. he made his own beer. he had his own homespun clothing. he did not want to rely on england for anything. you can see sheep grazing on his plantation.
horse over here loaded with plenty. a peach tree above him. he grew peaches on his farm. all of these things attest to the ability of the colonies to sustain themselves economically. in the foreground, there are things that point to english law. he is pointing to a figure of a justice standing on a column that says english law. the idea, this thing that is torn refers to the english attempts to tax the colonies the --nt leaves in differently than they taxed people in england. use basically saying the law -- he is basically saying you are treating us differently and that should not be. this is a political statement, very complicated iconography that probably worked out with
. charles was a very prominent republican politician in favor of the american republic. the paintings are here for us to look at, there is no filter on them. the only filter is what we might bring to them, but if we look carefully and try to understand them, i think they are a great source for understanding who the people were and what life was like at that time. >> this was the first of a two part look at american portraits at the national gallery of art. you can view this and all other american history tv programs at our website, c-span.org/history. >> a secret network to assist escaping slaves, the underground railroad ran from the southern slaveholding states to the northern states and canada. next, author c.r. gibbs outlines the underground railroad network in washington, d.c. he discusses members of congress and other political figures