Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Limner Makes a House Call

Portraiture was a tough way to make a living in 19th-century America, but it was also one of the only ways a painter could find work. The Boston portraitist John Singleton Copley once complained: “Were it not for portraiture, painting would be unknown in this place.”

What made portrait painting so difficult? The patrons, who knew little about art, and the people around them, who knew nothing. Few folk artists recorded the trials and tribulations of their own lives, but at least one trained artist left us with his own version of life as a traveling portrait painter in the early decades of the 1800s. This painter was Charles Bird King, and his painting The Itinerant Artist is in our collection at the Fenimore Art Museum.

King was born in 1785 in Newport, Rhode Island, and trained in New York and London prior to achieving notoriety as a painter of stunning portraits of 143 American Indian Chiefs who were visiting Washington, DC in 1821. Our painting, done much later, shows the artist looking back at his early days when he was a young artist struggling to make a living.

The Itinerant Artist is a large painting (44 3/4" x 57") that depicts a portrait painter, possibly King himself, trying to paint the likeness of the lady of the house while getting unwanted criticism from an old woman, probably the sitter's mother. Unlike established artists who worked alone in their studios, the itinerant folk artist often had to contend with chaotic environments (they often set up shop temporarily in a tavern) and extended family.

King shows the subject of the portrait in her finest dress, sitting upright to present herself appropriately for what may have been the only portrait painted of her during her entire life. One of her daughters gives her reassurance, while at her feet sits an African -American child who is most likely a slave or servant of the household.

Another distraction for the poor artist can be seen behind him. A boy of the household is trying his hand at portraiture while looking over the shoulder of the portrait painter. His sister looks on. In all likelihood, the family members would have seen as much merit in the efforts of the boy as they did in the artist.

The man of the house, of course, wants nothing to do with any of this. He casts a disdainful look over his shoulder as he heads out the door with his rifle to do something useful like hunt for food.

Imagine trying to work in this household with all of the distractions seen so far. These pale in comparison to the wailing of this infant in the crib at his mother's feet. Imagine also having artistic aspirations, perhaps to be a great history painter or at least a prosperous journeyman. It’s no wonder that James Whsitler once defined a portrait as “a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.”

Of course, the subject’s ignorance of art could also be an advantage for the artist. The peddler, tinker and schoolmaster James Guild of Vermont described his first attempt at portrait painting in his journal in 1818: “It makes me smile when I think of while I was daubing on paint on a piece of paper, it would not be called painting, for it looked more like a strangled cat than it did like her. However I told her it looked like her and she believed it.”

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