Perhaps no other genre painter better typifies the idealization of the American frontier than George Caleb Bingham. Growing up in St. Louis, Bingham was almost entirely self-taught, except for a brief time spent as an art student in Philadelphia. Best known for his depictions of frontiersmen and fur traders on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Bingham often created scenes that can best be described as those of fraternal communities at the periphery of western civilization.
By many accounts, John Wesley Jarvis was a flamboyant, eccentric person. Biographical sketches invariably include accounts of his outrageous fashion sense, his drunken adventures, and his uproarious storytelling. Born in England, he was brought to Philadelphia at five years old. At 16, he was apprenticed to a portrait painter and engraver. Jarvis eventually broke out on his own, developing a reputation as a sought-after portraitist and consummate storyteller.
After a century of obscurity, in 1939 Joshua Johnson was “rediscovered” by a Baltimore historian who suggested that the artist might have been African American. The later discovery of papers documenting Johnson’s liberation from slavery has confirmed his identity as the first African American with an identifiable art practice. The recovery of Johnson’s identity, and the premium placed upon that identity by collectors and museums, reveal developments in American cultural history.
After an impoverished childhood, Gilbert Charles Stuart received artistic instruction after begging the artist Benjamin West for a place in his studio. Stuart brushed off drawing and composition studies, disliking the use of elaborate poses and refusing to labor over details of dress, attributes, or backgrounds. Instead, he built his reputation as someone who, in the words of West, could “nail the face to the canvas,” and became one of the most highly regarded portraitists of his time.
After training as an artist, Robert Salmon moved from Liverpool, England, to Boston in 1828. A reportedly eccentric and solitary man, he lived for years in a small dwelling on one of Boston’s many wharves. His paintings reflect the Dutch tradition of maritime painting, featuring a low horizon line and clarity of light. His paintings are rich in miniature detail, and it is possible that his incredible attention to detail was fostered by the material values of mercantile Boston.
James Earl was the younger brother by 10 years of the artist Ralph Earl. Their ancestors were Quakers who left Exeter, England, for Rhode Island around 1634. The family eventually settled in Massachusetts, and James was born in Worcester County in 1761. He may have been trained by his older brother. As many of Earl’s portraits depict former American colonists who fled to London immediately after the American Revolution, it is believed that he may have had loyalist sympathies.
John Vanderlyn was among the first generation of artists who tried to raise the standards of American art to the level of European painting, which was then considered far superior. After studying basic painting techniques with Gilbert Stuart, Vanderlyn spent 19 years studying in Europe, where he was fascinated by ancient statues and neoclassical history painting. Vanderlyn found limited success back in America, as there was little demand for the grand history paintings he wanted to paint.
Charles Willson Peale is best remembered for his portraits of eminent Americans. When he was in his forties, after painting hundreds of portraits of politicians, scientists, and business leaders, Peale established a museum of art and natural history for the American people. The Philadelphia Museum became the first important museum in America. In addition to portraits and natural specimens, the museum featured a complete mastodon skeleton—Peale had directed the dig in New York in 1801.
Benjamin West helped establish the fine-art painting tradition in the United States. Born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, West showed artistic talent at a young age. He was encouraged to study history, art, and antiquity in Europe; in 1760 he became the first American artist to study in Italy. In 1763 he went to London, where King George III made him a member of the Royal Academy. West spent the rest of his life in London, keeping an open-door policy for American artists traveling abroad.
John Trumbull is best known for his paintings documenting the people and events of the American Revolution. After graduating from Harvard College, he served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the revolution. He began painting shortly before going to England in 1780 to study with Benjamin West. Trumbull returned to the United States in 1789, and his friendships with American politicians helped him secure prestigious portrait commissions, and his career flourished on both sides of the Atlantic.