Monday, October 12, 2009

A Deaf Artist in Early America

Imagine what it must have been like to have your portrait painted in the early 19th century. First of all, before the camera was introduced via the daguerreotype in 1839, having a portrait painted was the only way to get a likeness of yourself. For most people, it was the only likeness they would obtain in their entire lifetime. It was, therefore, a pretty serious business, and its success depended on the rapport between the sitter and the artist.

This rapport was even more important when having portraits done of your children. In an era of high infant and child mortality, the act of portrait making took on a decided urgency. Early daguerreotypists used the phrase: “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fade.”

Considering all of the above, it is remarkable that the most successful folk portrait painter of children was a man who could neither speak nor hear. John Brewster, Jr. was born a deaf mute in 1766 in Connecticut, and grew up in a close circle of family and friends who probably learned to understand him through the use of improvised signs (American Sign Language had not yet been developed). In retrospect, it seems fortunate that he had artistic talent, for there was little else he would have been able to do.

Brewster learned to paint from a local portraitist and set off for Buxton, Maine with his physician brother in 1805. Within months he was painting elegant, serene portraits of some of Maine’s most prominent citizens. But his portraits of children are his most stunning works of art. The youngsters he paints float angelically on the canvas, with large, expressive eyes looking up at the viewer with yearning and fascination. His portraits of Franics O. Watts (top right) and "One Shoe Off" (lower left) are in the Fenimore Art Museum. The portrait of Comfort Starr Mygatt and His Son George (above left) and his half sister Sophia Brewster (above right) are in private collections.
Kids must have loved Brewster, and he must have had a special fondness for them too. Ironic, considering he never married nor did he have children of his own. What little we know of Brewster’s personality, from the1791 diary of a family friend, the Reverend James Cogswell, hints at him being a particularly engaging young man; “Brewster, the Deaf & D. young Man was at my House when I came Home. He tarried & dined here – he appears to have a good Disposition & an ingenious Mind. I could converse little with him, being not enough acquainted to understand his Signs. I pity Him - & feel thankful to God for the Exercise of my Senses.”

In his landmark book, A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr., scholar Harlan Lane strongly suggests that Brewster’s deafness enhanced his powers of observation. Likewise, the presence of so many sensitively rendered faces with large eyes point to the importance of the face and particularly the gaze in communication among the deaf. In Brewster’s portraits we see the world literally through the eyes of a deaf man.

That’s the scholar’s point of view, and a valid one. But as I was leading a tour group through a Brewster exhibition we had at the Fenimore Art Museum a few years ago, I got a mom’s perspective. When I was pondering Brewster’s portraits of children she piped up and said; “Well, if he couldn’t hear the racket the kids made, he probably had more patience with them.”

I just smiled. When it comes to medicine or art history, you can’t out-diagnose a mom.

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