Portraits—visual representations of self—are layered acc­ounts of actuality, desire, and projection. Add the filter of time and historical portraits are granted a curious authority by modern viewers. Read as documents, they are taken at face value and accorded a free pass to authenticity: A statesman is perceived to have been a great leader; a child incapable of any misdeeds. But portraits are negotiations, complex bargains between artist, sitter, and society. Why did politicians dress as gentry before the American Rev­olution, but eschew finery in the years that followed? What happened when the painter failed to camouflage the scars of youth or the wrinkles of experience in the Gilded Age? How did conventions of portraiture change over time and what does the genre tell us about American culture? Self/Image: Portraiture from Copley to Close plumbs these questions and explores the development of American portraiture from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day.

American portraits of the eighteenth century illustrate narratives of association. Individuals belonged to recognizable communities, categories, or occupations—ministers, mothers, husbands, wives, military officers, and merchants. Colonial desires to identify with the larger British Empire played out in the canvasses of provincial painters such as Joseph Blackburn and John Singleton Copley in the decades before the Revolution. The right silk dress, either real or copied from an imported mezzotint, could transform the daughter of a local merchant into a subject fit to “marry up.” A fashionable wig declared the merchant’s allegiance to the mainstream consumer culture of the Atlantic rim and his readiness to trade with his peers in Barbados or London.

The decades that bracketed the turn of the nineteenth century brought a sea change in American portraiture. Political desires to create a distinct national identity fractured the earlier visual order of the British Empire and provided citizens of the nascent United States with new options for a respectable likeness. The classical past provided an organizing theme for the image of the new republic. Neoclassical dress became the fashion in the early years of the nineteenth century and many a founding father and republican mother posed in the heroic stance of an idealized Roman statue. An equally powerful impulse to associate with the common man brought about the rise of “plain” speech in the public sphere and “plain” portraits as a representation of self. Frank, even austere in setting and composition, these portraits provided a distinctly American visual accent to the work of both trained and self-taught painters.  

Modern life reified the individual in person and on canvas. Thomas Eakins’ portrait of A. W. Lee illustrates the collateral challenge brought to the artist by the sitter’s sense of self. The sitter, well-used to his photographic image by the time he posed for the artist in 1894, found Eakins’ version wanting and returned the canvas. Simply put, Eakins’ vision was not congruent with Lee’s self-image. Although Eakins’ realism appears tame to postmodern eyes, his era inaugurated an epoch wherein the subject shifts from sitter to artist. The twentieth century challenged the age-old notion of the portraitist as limner, constrained by the requirement to provide a likeness only. The portraitist as subject is literally celebrated in the work of Chuck Close who has used his own fingerprints to build up an image of his sitter. Self/Image: Portraiture from Copley to Close maps the shifting contours of art and identity one face at a time.


Jeremiah Thëus (1716–74), Mrs. Thomas Lynch, 1755. Oil on canvas, 29-7/8 x 24-7/8 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1972.2.1.

Conventional wisdom holds that wealthy eighteenth-century Southerners were more “English” than other colonists. They followed the latest London fashions and preferred English artists for their portraits. The Swiss immigrant artist Jeremiah Thëus, however, made a thriving thirty-year career as a portrait painter in cosmopolitan Charleston, South Carolina. An early advertisement for Thëus’s offerings in the South-Carolina Gazette stated that “for the Convenience of those who live in the Country, he is willing to wait on them at their respective Plantations.”  

This portrait of Elizabeth Allston Lynch, mother of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, reminds us that Thëus, like Copley and Blackburn, relied upon the international visual culture of the Atlantic rim to present his sitters as worldly and fashionable. Indeed, Elizabeth Lynch’s portrait closely resembles a mezzotint of the Duchess of Hamilton Brandon from around 1752. Thëus is known to have employed the distinct gown from this print source on a number of occasions. By “wearing” the duchess’s scalloped sleeve dress and sporting the same nosegay, Mrs. Lynch makes a claim for gentility and position.

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Robinson, 1795. Oil on canvas, 27-1/4 x 36-1/8 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art; gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1973.2.2.

As the paterfamilias of the most important family of painters in American history, Charles Willson Peale guaranteed his reputation through his progeny as well as his contributions to the natural sciences and the founding of the first public museum in the United States. The typical renaissance man of the early republic, Peale set high standards for his children by naming them Titian, Rembrandt, and Angelica Kauffman, the latter after a Swiss painter of his acquaintance.

Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Robinson has a compelling subtext. Not only is it a double portrait and therefore rare for a Peale, but, more significantly, the sitters are the artist’s daughter and her husband, a wealthy Englishman. There is little doubt about the status of the couple. The Robinsons wear the finest of clothing and are painted outdoors, perhaps to remind viewers of their considerable land holdings. As for the portrait’s untold story, look closely. Peale lavished his skills upon Angelica, moving rather quickly over his son-in-law with whom he endured frosty relations.

Joseph Blackburn (active in America 1754–1763), Elizabeth Browne Rogers, 1761. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art; original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the ARCA Foundation, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1967.2.5.

Edgar Richardson, who wrote an important history of American art in 1956, paid little attention to Joseph Blackburn. His treatment of flesh and fabric was an improvement over earlier, more wooden, painters, Richardson felt, but fell far short of John Singleton Copley. A decade later, however, Blackburn’s portrait of Elizabeth Browne Rogers captured the attention of the Reynolda House acquisition committee as a masterwork with important historical associations. The sitter, Elizabeth Browne, was the daughter of the Anglican rector of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She appears at age twenty in a pose and a dress typical of English mezzotints or engravings of the period. Mostly likely painted on the occasion of her marriage to Major Robert Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War, the portrait displays Blackburn’s keen ability to depict his sitter’s status in the British Empire.

The life of Elizabeth Rogers proved to be anything but silks and lace. After years of hardship on the frontier, Elizabeth divorced Robert Rogers, but soon entered into another difficult marriage, this time to the captain of the warship Ranger. Her troubled life achieved popular attention in 1937 when Kenneth Roberts published Northwest Passage, a historical novel based upon her life.

John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), John Spooner, 1763. Oil on canvas. 30 x 25-3/4 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Bequest of Nancy Susan Reynolds, 1968.2.1.

Few people living in North America could afford an oil portrait in the eighteenth century. Copley and his predecessors, Blackburn and Thëus, served an elite, visually literate clientele. Imported mezzotints and engravings, however, provided a delivery system for images of royalty, the rich, and the famous in the colonies. These prints often followed the convention of presenting the sitter in an oval. By mimicking this popular medium, Copley subtly flattered John Spooner by depicting him as the sort of man who might have his image widely circulated in the British empire.  This promised fame came to naught, however, for Spooner fled the colonies in 1768 amidst the unrest that followed the passing of the Stamp Act in1765. He died a year later in London.

After descending in the family of the sitter, this portrait belonged to Philip Leffingwell Spaulding in the 1920s and 30s. Spaulding, a well-known antiquarian of the generation that organized the Americana movement, lent it to an early exhibition entitled One Hundred Colonial Portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, fanning interest in Copley’s career among collectors.

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), Harrison Gray Otis, 1809. Oil on mahogany panel, 32 x 26 inches. Historic New England, Boston.

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis (Sally Foster), 1809. Oil on mahogany panel, 32 x 26 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the ARCA Foundation, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1967.2.3.

Gilbert Stuart painted the pantheon of distinguished Americans in the early republic. His portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay created the face of American political life in the young nation. The Federalist politician Harrison Gray Otis and his wife Sally, as leading citizens of Boston, sat for Stuart in 1809. Well aware of their public image, the Otises were fashion conscious and sensitive to the vagaries of social geography—moving three times to more desirable addresses on Beacon Hill. Each house was designed by Charles Bullfinch, the premier Boston architect of his day.

Not only did Sally Otis’s dress place her on the cutting edge of international fashion, but it also held great symbolic meaning. Unlike the fanciful costumes of pre-Revolutionary portraits, principally composites of imagined silks and designs from imported mezzotints designed to mark the sitter’s status in the British Empire, Otis’s sheer gown proclaimed her allegiance to the ideals of the new republic. Such costume became all the rage in the early years of the nineteenth century as the nascent United States adopted the organizing principles of the classical past in architecture, fashion, and education.

Self/Image: Portraiture from Copley to Close reunites the portraits of Harrison Gray Otis and his wife Sally Foster Otis for the first time in decades. After descending as a pair the portraits came on the market in the 1960s. Harrison Gray Otis was purchased by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Since the early twentieth century the organization has been headquartered in the first Harrison Gray Otis House, a three-story Federal mansion designed by Charles Bullfinch and built on Cambridge Street at the foot of Beacon Hill in Boston. There the portrait has hung for nearly four decades.

Sally, on the other hand, moved south. Purchased by the acquisitions committee of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the portrait of Sally Otis graced the walls of the museum when it opened to the public in 1967. Originally the home of R. J. and Katharine Smith Reynolds, Reynolda was built in 1917 as the centerpiece of a 1,100 acre model farm. Transformed into one of the nation’s premier regional museums, Reynolda is home to an extraordinary collection, with Sally Otis as first among equals. An active exhibition program adds to the cultural life of Winston-Salem and has allowed Historic New England and Reynolda House to reunite the separated couple, prompting more than one commentator to call the exhibition “When Harry Met Sally Again.”

Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868), Worthington Whittredge in his Tenth Street Studio, 1865. Oil on canvas, 15 x 12 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art; gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1984.2.12.

The Tenth Street Studio Building, arguably the most important address for artists in New York City in the nineteenth century, played a germinal role in the creation of the public persona of the artist in American culture. Designed in 1857 by the architect Richard Morris Hunt specifically to provide up-to-date studios for artists on the eve of the Civil War, the Tenth Street Studio became something of a clubhouse for an emerging generation of creative professionals. William Merritt Chase, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Martin Johnson Heade all worked or lived in the building at some point in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Leutze, himself a denizen of the building, captured his colleague Whittredge hard at work in his own quarters in 1865. The heroic pose of the solitary genius at work in an austere studio helped fix popular assumptions about the work habits and lifestyle of artists in modern society. Two decades later, William Merritt Chase’s flamboyant views of his own studio in the Tenth Street building would revolutionize the stereotype of the artistic environment and fuel the mania for the aesthetic movement in America.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), A. W. Lee, circa 1905. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art; gift of Nancy Susan Reynolds and Barbara B. Millhouse, 1969.2.2.

In 1905, Ashbury Wright Lee saw his finished portrait by Eakins for the first time. Lee sent the artist two hundred dollars and a note stating, “you will receive the Painting back.” The exchange was not atypical. Upon his death, Eakins left a studio filled with paintings, many of which his wife donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1929. Several of the portraits, like this painting of Lee, had been rejected by the sitters. By the 1920s, art critics were rapidly rethinking Eakins. This posthumous recognition gathered steam in 1933 when Eakins scholar Lloyd Goodrich published his first study of the painter and continues to this day with exhibitions and monographs that justly place the painter in the canon of American artists. Today, Eakins’s work is prized for the artist’s skill at rendering anatomical detail and nuance. Lee’s bloodshot eyes and sallow complexion, while not congruent with the sitter’s sense of self, give the painting uncanny presence.

Chuck Close (b. 1940), Keith/ Random Fingerprint Version, 1979. Stamp-pad ink on paper, 29-1/2 x 22 inches. Reynolda House Museum of American Art. © Chuck Close, Courtesy of Pace Wildenstein, New York.

The singular touch of a virtuoso painter has for centuries been the measure of a portraitist. Keith/Random Fingerprint Version places an ironic spin on the complex relationship between subject and artist. When Chuck Close first began painting his friends he adopted the modernist protocol of working within a grid. In the course of completing a portrait this graphic aid disappeared. In Keith, a landmark mezzotint of 1972, Close retained the grid and achieved popular success while updating a traditional technique. Seven years later, Close subverted the grid once again and built an image of Keith using his own fingerprints in the grids, almost as if to question modernism by returning the touch of the artist.

Self/Image: Portraiture from Copley to Close is presented by Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and runs through December 31, 2006. For information visit www.reynoldahouse.org or call 336.758.5150.

Thomas Denenberg* is chief curator and William E. and Helen E. Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art. He previously served as Betsy Main Babcock Curator at Reynolda House. 


* As of the archive edition in April 2018, Thomas Denenberg is currently director of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. 


This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2006 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. AFA is affiliated with Incollect.