Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bryan Wolf reviews The American School

Susan Rather. The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 316 pp.

Review by Bryan J. Wolf

In the early modern era the distinction between artist and artisan was a porous one.  Both produced bespoke artifacts geared to the satisfaction of demanding patrons.  The artisan typically placed a wooden sign in front of his shop.  He advertised a range of products and services that bore a family resemblance to each other.  If he were a limner or painter of portraits, he would also, necessarily, create signs, paint carriages, and serve as a vendor of supplies tied to the trade.  An artist, by contrast, sought to define himself as the opposite of all the above.  His handwork remained always in service to his headwork.  He was capable, as the artisan or mechanik was not, of generalizing ideas.  His vision revolved around civic duty, universal truth, and gentlemanly behavior.  Were it not for the untidy fact that paintings required painters, he would happily forego the technical effort, the manual training, the hand-to-canvas practice that left him uncomfortably close in his everyday life to the world of tailors and coopers. 

Susan Rather wants to understand how the transition from handwork to headwork occurred in the late eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic world: when did painters become artists?  In The American School. Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era she combines case histories (John Singleton Copley, William Williams, Benjamin West, Matthew Pratt, and Gilbert Stuart) with extended social histories, weaving a narrative that is both revealing and surprising.  It is revealing because Rather’s account asks us to reimagine our canonical narratives of American art history (William Williams, really?) and, surprising, because the road from handwork to headwork turns out to be rather more bumpy than one might expect.  The story Rather tells is not one of inevitable progress or evolution.  No artisan ever got be an artist simply by stepping out of the water and walking on his fins.  To the contrary, the battle for artistic independence and legitimacy has been a fierce one with many skirmishes, occasional retreats, and results that only in hindsight look inevitable. 

The story begins in 1729 with John Smibert, whose Boston studio a young John Singleton Copley occupied many years after Smibert’s death.  In a large canvas known today as The Bermuda Group (1729) Smibert places himself at the periphery of a gathering of gentlemen and their families, most of whom had earlier embarked on an ill-fated venture to establish a college for young men in the British colony of Bermuda.  Smibert’s conflicted class position in the canvas as both painting instructor and consort to gentlemen sets the stage for Copley’s insistent self-invention half a century later.  Copley’s story is a well-rehearsed one: a young man born in 1738 on Boston’s Long Wharf into a family of artisans propels himself forward by a felicitous combination of talent, marriage and what, in retrospect, looks like an abundance of chutzpah.  The result, several decades and many portraits later, is an “artist.”

Copley staged the debate between artisanal expectations and artistic aspirations in two contrasting portraits: his iconic Portrait of Paul Revere (1768) and a pastel Self-Portrait painted the following year.  The Revere painting, for Rather, allows Copley at one level to identify with Revere and thus to dally with the possibilities of artisanal labor while simultaneously distancing himself from Revere’s wigless state and linen blouse.  Revere is about to engrave a teapot resting comfortably in his extended left hand.  As Rather keenly observes, the founders of the Royal Society in London in 1768 (the same year as Revere’s portrait) originally planned to exclude all engravers from membership “on the grounds that their work was substantially reproductive.”  By linking Revere’s triangulated body with the work of engraving, Copley in effect pictures in Revere precisely what he would not accept for himself.  While art historians have traditionally read the portrait as revolutionary in its egalitarian dimensions (Revere as everyman), Rather sees the painting instead as a cautionary tale: a portrait of the artisan as failed artist.  Copley’s own pastel self-portrait, on the other hand, defies local sumptuary laws by clothing the artist in a showy display of luxury fabrics, a gentlemanly banyan and a powered wig.  The pastel painting is all about textiles, textures, and elite comportment.  There are no hands to be seen,and no hint that Copley was ever anything but to the manner born.

Copley’s story helps establish the book’s binary narrative: the effort by certain painters to—in effect—suppress what might seem artisanal in their labors in order to become the opposite: headworkers and gentlemen.  The American School complicates its tale by tracking the hemming and hawing—not to mention outright backsliding—that accompanied all “forward” motion.  Itinerant painter William Williams, whom Rather does a remarkable job of rehabilitating, is the only figure in the book who appears to have lived comfortably within the range of ambitions available to colonial era artisans.  He painted landscapes, portraits, coaches and signboards without apparently chafing against the motley range of subjects.  Benjamin West, by contrast, virtually invented himself as a British gentleman and loyal servant to King George III by igniting a fashion for modern history painting, in the process placing himself at one remove not only from his artisanal origins but from the more “lowly” task of portrait painting.  Late in life, and with the conspiratorial help of biographer John Galt, he reinvented himself once again not as the official painter to the King but as a provincial American ingénue propelled forward by native “genius” and an innocent eye (why else be an American?).  By the close of the eighteenth century, Gilbert Stuart—Copley’s successor as the most talented portraitist in America—had brazenly flipped the notion of gentlemanly behavior on its head.  Riding on the currents of an incipient Romantic taste for high emotion and eccentric behavior, Stuart dashed all talk of gentlemanly comportment by combining sumptuous portraits—marvels of color, brushwork and texture—with rude and uncouth behavior.

There is a hidden figure, I suspect, in Rather’s carpet.  What emerges from Rather’s handsomely designed and generously illustrated text is a logic, a habit of mind, central to social art history itself.  The American School advances its narrative by a process of metonymic thinking.  The text develops page by page in associative fashion.  Thus in an account of West’s relation to Reynolds and the Royal Academy, Rather moves, in a serial manner, from a brief discussion of Reynolds’ concern with sight, to the literature on the senses in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the question of smell and its relation to snuff, to a pen and wash drawing that West makes of a young Gilbert Stuart with a snuffbox at his side, to the relation between snuff and sociability in the eighteenth century, to the interrelated categories of complaisance and complacence.  It’s a form of thick description that moves sideways, always eager to pursue its themes by a process of narrative contiguity.   The risk, of course, is that the subject being pursued will disappear in the welter of social information surrounding it.  To Rather’s credit, this death-by-detail tends not to happen in The American School.  Instead, Rather writes with an eye to the larger story.  The potential digressiveness of her method is circumscribed by her unfailing vision of the drama before her.

In related fashion, The American School shifts its attention through the course of the book from visual culture to issues of narrative and storytelling.  If the book begins with the question of what does a painter paint (a portrait or a carriage?), then it concludes in the last chapter with a different concern: what stories do artists tell about themselves?  Becoming an artist, from this vantage, has less to do with the content of one’s work and more to do with who controls the narrative.  This helps explain the sustained attention Rather gives not only to Galt’s biography of West but to the larger theme of artists painting other artists.  Rather traces with great precision the growing concern among both artists and the literate public for images of artists and artists’ studios, whether as portraits, interior scenes or conversation pieces.   She identifies the theme of artists on art as one of the foundational topoi of modern painting, reading it implicitly as a marker of how artists came to viewed as different from other people and thus legitimated as more than mere artisans and skilled laborers.  The next step in this narrative—a step that the book does not attempt—would be to return, in Habermasian fashion, to the question of painting and the public sphere in the eighteenth century, investigating the role that culture and aesthetics have played in the shaping of modernity.  In particular, Rather might have problematized her own critical terms, seeing the artist less as the endpoint of a larger cultural migration away from the artisanal, and more as a contested category in its own right—a form of self-branding or commoditization tied to changing market conditions and increasing pressures towards professionalization. 

We are left, at the end, with a savvy account of the historical prerequisites that led to—and provided the foundation for—the later professionalization of the arts at the end of the nineteenth century.  Rather displays a fine ear for the politics of painting: the significance, for example, of Revere’s linen blouse, a homespun product that might have signaled Revere’s boycott of British goods in the wake of the Townshend Acts, or the importance of signboards for figures like Williams and William Hogarth, who insisted through his recurrent depiction of shop signs on the commercial aspects of all art-making.  What Rather provides in The American School is a portrait of the artist as a young concept, an idea long in the making and slow in the realization.  The book helps untangle the complicated nexus of aesthetics, politics, social status and painterly self-awareness that dominated painting at the close of the long eighteenth century.  It provides an in-depth portrait of the “instability of professional status” in the early modern world, and the “changing strategies by which artists sought to secure it.”  In the process it confirms our sense that well before we learned, as good postmoderns, to deconstruct art and artists, we first needed to work very hard to construct them.