Henry Benbridge was among the first generation of American artists to receive artistic training in Europe. Born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia, Benbridge was able to travel to Italy and London, where he exhibited his work at the Royal Academy. His travels put him in contact with other Americans abroad, such as Benjamin Franklin and the artist Benjamin West. These introductions created opportunities for Benbridge back in the United States, where he later became a fashionable portraitist.
While Robert Feke was one of the first American-born portrait painters, to identify him as an American artist is complicated; like many colonial artists, he turned to European prints for poses, costumes, and settings. Raised in Oyster Bay, New York, Feke painted in New York City, Newport, Philadelphia, and Boston. His career in America seems to have ended abruptly—while some scholars believe he eventually traveled to Barbados, no record of his life there has ever been found.
Born in New Jersey, Joseph Wright traveled to England with his mother, an artist and Revolutionary spy. He studied under Benjamin West and John Hoppner, later traveling to Paris, where he painted society portraits under the patronage of Benjamin Franklin. Wright returned to America penniless after a shipwreck off the Spanish coast. He was a skilled clay and wax modeler, and George Washington named him the first draftsman of the US Mint; Wright designed many of the first American medals and coins.
Boston-raised John Singleton Copley was instructed in art by his stepfather, the mezzotint engraver Peter Pelham. After Pelham’s death, Copley taught himself using the few resources available in colonial Boston. By the age of 20 he was widely known as a portrait painter, recognized for his technical skills and his ability to capture the details of his sitters’ clothes—his patrons were pleased with his work, for they continued to commission portraits and recommend him to family and friends.
Henry Inman was born near Utica, New York. After moving to New York City in 1812, he was accepted for a seven-year apprenticeship by the portrait painter John Wesley Jarvis. Jarvis helped train Inman and prepared him to begin his own career. Inman painted portraits, genre scenes, and occasionally made book illustrations. In addition, he also embarked upon the major task of copying 100 portraits of Native Americans by Charles Bird King for lithographic reproductions and a touring exhibition.
Gustav Grunewald was a member of the Moravian religious community of Gnadau, Germany. In 1831 he left to join the sect’s settlement at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He first traveled to Niagara Falls on a sketching trip in 1832; he would go on to paint and exhibit the subject at least 11 times. For the Moravians, nature presented evidence of God. For this reason, Niagara Falls would have held spiritual significance for Grunewald and his community.
John Wollaston was born in London. His father was a portrait painter, and he trained with “a noted drapery painter in London.” In 1749 he went to New York City, where he began painting fashionable, British-style portraits for wealthy Americans. Wollaston stayed in the colonies for 18 years, painting portraits in New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Virginia, and Charleston, making him the most widely traveled painter in colonial America.
Oriana Weatherbee Day was born in Marshfield, Massachusetts, in 1838. In 1877 she and her husband moved to Vallejo, California, and between 1877 and 1884 she traveled the length of El Camino Real, visiting all 21 of the then-disintegrating California missions. Day sought to paint every individual mission, though instead of documenting the buildings as the ruins she encountered, she rendered them at the height of their historical influence, showing daily life during California’s missionary past.
Born in Philadelphia in 1791, Thomas Doughty was listed as a painter in the city directory by 1816. He was probably mostly self-taught; he copied European landscape pictures and made sketching trips to record details for his paintings. Doughty later came to be known as a founder of the American landscape tradition, and his paintings were recognized for their realism—he recorded some of his works as being “from nature,” and others as “from recollection” or “composition[s].”
Few artists did more to popularize the American West than German-born Albert Bierstadt. The enormous canvases he painted from sketches made during several trips to western American landmarks such as the Rocky Mountains and Mount Corcoran in the Sierra Nevada only made his reputation for panoramic landscapes grow. Bierstadt’s travels took him across the United States and Europe, though he freely changed the details of places he painted in order to heighten the drama and excitement of his compositions.