Comparing Paintings by John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn

American artists in the mid-1700s were overwhelmed with the desire of wealthy Americans to have paintings of themselves, and thus did not paint as many landscapes. These first European settlers in America were mostly interested in preserving their own history in America and making sure they were remembered. However, it was difficult to entirely escape from the influence of the wilderness surrounding them. Even though nature was not the main subject of these works of art, it still played a very important part in the background of the paintings. These people were proud of their surroundings and their status in the new world of America, and wanted their portraits to reflect the picturesque wilderness that now enveloped them. In this post I will be focusing on two early American paintings that we discussed in class, John Smibert’s “The Bermuda Group: Dean George Berkeley and His Family” (1729) and “Isaac Winslow and His Family” (1755) by Joseph Blackburn.

John Smibert, “The Bermuda Group: Dean George Berkeley and His Family” (1729)

The earlier of the paintings, “The Bermuda Group: Dean George Berkeley and His Family,” depicts a group of people surrounding a table. Three adults sit at the table; two women sit in the middle of the composition, one pointing and one holding an infant, and a man at the left sits leans over a book, quill poised to write. Four men stand further back in the scene, all in white wigs except for the man at the far left. This man (who is the artist, John Smibert), the woman in yellow, and the infant on her lap are all gazing outside the frame and at the observer. The man at the far right, though he is less foregrounded that some of the others and is not centered, is obviously the main subject of the painting. This is because of how large he appears, his general presence, and how he is highlighted. This man is the leader of the Bermuda Group, Dean George Berkeley. They stand in front of a landscape, separated by columns.

Joseph Blackburn, “Isaac Winslow and His Family” (1755)

The second painting, “Isaac Winslow and His Family,” depicts four people: a man, a woman, an infant, and a girl. The man is leaning against a man-made structure, perhaps a wall, while the woman is seated to the right of him. The infant child is sitting in the woman’s lap and is reaching towards the bundle of fruit being held in the folds of the older girl’s skirt. The three oldest people are looking outside of the canvas, while the infant is fascinated by the fruit. Behind the wall is a beautifully manicured yard with trees, likely where some of the fruit came from, a pond with swans, and a gate.

In both paintings the groups of people are in the foreground of their scenic surroundings. However, there is a physical, man-made barrier between the figures and the landscapes. Their backs are turned away from nature, likely facing more man-made objects. There is acknowledgement of the artist in both works by the figures in that many of the subjects are looking towards the viewer. The families in both paintings are obviously wealthy. This is evident in both the richness of their clothing and their beautiful surroundings. There are infants in both paintings, one looking at away from the viewer, precociously distracted by the older sibling’s bundle of fruit, and the other looking outside of the frame, apparently distracted by the viewer. Also, all three children are entranced by fruit. This could be merely a coincidence on part of both of the artists, or it could be a commentary on the hopes for the next generation. The land will bear rewards for this first generation of true Americans. The daughter carrying a skirt literally overflowing with fruit in “Isaac Winslow and His Family” is showing off how wealthy her family is by proudly displaying the riches of their land.

Besides the personal use of the families to display their wealth, these paintings can also be seen as propaganda to those still living in Europe. The lush, open landscapes that have barely been touched by the hands of men would likely cause jealousy to those tired of the bustling cities in Europe. Showing the wealth of the families would also give these people hope in altering the lives they were born into and felt unable to change while remaining in Europe.

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