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Portraits of Early Americans

Previous to 1839 when the daguerreotype was perfected, pencil and brush were the only means of recording human likenesses. There were trained artists at home and abroad to depict the wealthy and politically important, of course, but were it not for the unknown itinerant painters of a century and a half ago, we should have very little idea of how the average American of that time looked.

These men with a talent for getting the human image down on wood, canvas, or paper, worked mostly in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Some of them had a little training, a very few had even studied abroad, but most of them were self-taught and relied on native ability and the knowledge they had been able to pick up as sign- or coach-painters to depict what they saw. Their clients were prosperous farmers and substantial citizens of small towns. Like the country craftsmen who made furniture, silver, and pewter, their work varied according to their artistic skill. But, with even the crudest paintings, there was a realism that art critics have recently begun to appreciate.

Although artists with a craft rather than an academic background must have worked in America from the closing years of the seventeenth century on, most of the so-called primitive paintings found today were painted between 1790 and 1860. They were done in oils, watercolors, and pastels. Canvas, of course, was usual for oils, but wood and even upholsterer's ticking were sometimes used.

Like the photographer of the 1870's and later, the itinerant painter had a set way of posing his subjects, with certain stage props to indicate the profession or occupation of the sitter-binoculars for a sea captain, a book for a clergyman or a lawyer, a doll or other toy for a child, a flower or a book for a woman. Some of these wayfaring artists even prepared a number of canvases with scenic or plain background and with the body of the subject completed, save for the head. Then as summer weather made traveling about the countryside feasible, they set out to secure commissions from clients living in small towns and on farms.

In many cases, the itinerant painter was a guest in the house while he executed portraits of the family, severally or sometimes as a group. With the time-saving device of a prepared canvas, the sitter had only to pose long enough for the head to be added and possibly the stage prop that labeled or flattered him, as the case might be. Most of the portraits are unsigned but a few are, and tradition has supplied enough information regarding the identity of these artist-craftsmen for a good-sized list of them to be assembled.

The artist that painted the portrait of the "Two Children" is unknown, but he obviously was not without some training. The subjects were two brothers, children of a Boston family, and the date was about 1844. The older child is dressed in a fawn-colored suit with white waistcoat and ruffled white collar; the other, scarcely more than an infant, is wearing a white frock with oval neck trimmed with blue ribbons. The pose is characteristic of the period. A colorful note is struck by the scarlet shawl on which the children are sitting and by the small scarlet volume which the younger brother holds on his knees.

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