( Originally Published 1955 )
The outstanding American portrait painter of the colonial period, he is believed to have been born in or near Boston, though no actual record of birth or baptism exists. His father died in the West Indies while John was still an infant and in 1748 his mother married Peter Pelham, an English engraver then living in Boston. He probably studied with his stepfather and knew the work of Smibert, but since both older men died in 1751 his training was short. He set up as a portrait painter and his earliest known paintings date from his fifteenth year. His early works (before c.1760) show an increasing control of craft and a growing realism and power, but are still dependent on the English style of Hogarth, Hudson, and Highmore, and eventually Reynolds as transmitted through Smibert, Pelham, Feke, Badger, Greenwood, Blackburn, and English engravings. By 1760, however, his personal style of realistic observation, plastic clarity, and painstaking craftsmanship were already established, and he was without peer among portraitists in America. He was in great demand and, until his departure for England in 1774, continued to paint the likenesses of leading citizens, their wives, and children-in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia-with perception and honesty. The limitations of his environment and a vague ambition toward greater things led in 1766 to his sending abroad Boy with Squirrel, a painting of his half-brother, for submission to the Society of Artists. Though he received high praise from both Reynolds and West and encouragement to settle in England, he postponed the trip until the eve of the Revolution. After his arrival in England, he set out in 1775 to copy the Old Masters in Italy. Travelling through Europe, he returned to London to find his family among the first Tory emigres from the Revolutionary War. On the whole the rest of his life in England was not a happy one. Through hard labor he acquired the grace of the English portraitists, attempted large-scale historical paintings like The Death of Chatham and The Death of Major Pierson, both now in the Tate Gallery, but his reputation as well as his art declined, his health failed, and he spent his last years in loneliness, regret, frustration and tragic senility. His finest works in their naive; though for the time revolutionary, realism date from his American period, e.g., Nathaniel Hurd (Cleveland Museum of Art), Mrs. Thomas Boylston (Harvard University), Governor and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Historical Society of Pennsylvania). Though at first in England he continued to produce more sophisticated portraits, e.g., Mrs. Ford (Wadsworth Atheneum), his art could not survive the elegant artificiality of London taste and ended in such failures as The Knatchbull Family (private collection).