Colonial Art and New Nation

In the early 18th century, most American colonists lacked the wealth and the leisure time to cultivate the fine arts. There were no American institutions where artists could receive formal training. Skilled artists in the colonies were mainly immigrants who brought with them the most current European art styles. A growing demand for portrait painting attracted artists from abroad.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, artists wanted to create a distinctive environment for the principles of liberty. Inspiration was found in the ideals of the ancient Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Cabinetmakers and silversmiths produced decorative arts in the Neoclassical style. Their work is characterized by order, symmetry and simplicity. This style in painting is exemplified by idealized anatomy, symmetrical compositions and pure colors.

  • Mrs. Edward Stow
    ca. 1802-3
    oil on panel
    Gilbert Stuart
    born North Kingstown, R.I. 1755
    died Boston, Mass. 1828
    Museum purchase made possible by the Art Acquisition and Restoration Fund 2000.1

    Gilbert Stuart’s sitters are portrayed in an atmosphere of luxury, reminiscent of the European grand style.
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  • Desk
    ca. 1715-40
    walnut, white oak, white pine and brass
    Unknown maker
    eastern Mass., active early 18th century
    Museum purchase made possible by the Endowment Fund in Honor of D. A. Turner 98.46

    This slant-front desk is made of walnut panels chosen for their beautiful grain and color.
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  • Elizabeth Michael Snyder
    ca. 1790
    oil on canvas
    Charles Willson Peale
    born Chester, Md. 1741
    died Philadelphia, Pa. 1827
    Museum purchase 83.37

    Charles Willson Peale produced naturalistic and simple portraits, which were often associated with the new American identity.
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