Gustavus Hesselius’s 1732 portraits of two Delaware Indian Chiefs hang just steps away from John Singleton Copley’s 1773 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the vast stylistic difference between these two painters we can see Philadelphia’s emergence from colonial outpost to worldly city.
Gustavus Hesselius immigrated from Sweden in 1712 with his brother, a Lutheran pastor, settling first in Wilmington, Del., where he painted portraits of his hosts, the Rev. and Mrs. Björk of Old Swedes Church.
“Gustav’s portrait of Erik Björk fits well with Swedish traditions from the middle of the 17th century,” writes Hans Ling in The Faces of New Sweden. His portraits are in the Northern Baroque style: realistic, dark and rigid. Hesselius soon left Delaware and painted in Philadelphia and Maryland before settling permanently in Philadelphia in 1730.
Like most colonial portraitists, Hesselius could not depend on portraits to survive, so he also painted houses, signs, ships, church altarpieces, and arms on coaches. He also gilded frames and cleaned pictures, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art”s, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art.
Still, Hesselius had very little competition in the Middle Atlantic colonies before about 1740. In Worldly Goods, Richard Saunders estimates that only 150 to 200 portraits were painted in Pennsylvania during the first half of the 18th century. Quakers disdained the vanity of the painted image, and portraits were as expensive as large case goods like chests of drawers. And there were only around 5,000 people in Pennsylvania in 1700, according to Worldly Goods, growing to 23,750 by 1760.
Lapowinsa and Tishcohan, Hesselius’s portraits of the Delaware chiefs, are justifiably famous. Not only are they the “earliest representations of American Indians as named individuals,” according to the Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists, they are also fresh, expressive faces and probably Hesselius’s best portraits. Otherwise, Hesselius was not a great portraitist. He was described thusly by James Logan, secretary to William Penn: “We have a Swedish painter here, no bad hand, who generally does justice to the men, especially their blemishes, which he never fails showing in the fullest light.”
Before 1740, Philadelphians who didn’t care for Hesselius’s work, like Logan’s wife, had few options for their portraiture. They could wait for another colonial painter to travel to Philadelphia, they could travel to another colony, or go abroad to have their portraits painted. It appears that merchant Thomas Lawrence traveled from Philadelphia to Perth Amboy, N.J. in 1720 to have his painted by Scottish immigrant John Watson, who also drew Sir William Keith, then governor of Pennsylvania. Saunders writes, “A more capable painter than Hesselius, Watson raised colonial baroque portraiture to a new level.”
By 1735, Philadelphia was becoming wealthier and less Quakerly, as Presbyterians and Anglicans grew in number. John Smibert, a Scottish immigrant to Boston, recognized that Philadelphia was ripe for his portraiture. Both Hesselius and Watson had stopped painting by 1740 when Smibert traveled to Philadelphia, preceded by letters of introduction.
Smibert painted 14 portraits over the course of eight weeks in Philadelphia, each time raising his price by more than 50 percent. “Of the several European artists who brought late Baroque styles to the attention of the colonists during the 18th century, Smibert was the most gifted and influential,” says Rosalie Goldstein in American Colonial Portraits from the Fogg Art Museum.
Stylistic change arrived with American- born painters in the 1740s. Robert Feke of Long Island came to Philadelphia in 1746. His portraits of Dr. Phineas Bond (1746) and Margaret McCall (1749) hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Saunders describes Feke’s “decidedly brighter palette, precise definition of form, and appreciation of satiny fabrics.” John Hesselius, son of Gustavus, also began painting portraits in Philadelphia in the 1740s. His portrait of Lynford Lardner (1749) is “stylistically much closer to the work of Robert Feke in its sharp definition of form than to the work of Gustavus,” according to Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art.
At the same time, immigrant John Wollaston was “one of several painters who introduced English rococo portraiture—with its emphasis on graceful poses, pastel colors, and skillfully rendered costumes,” to quote the Worcester Art Museum’s online biography, though neither Wollaston nor the natives totally banished the Baroque. His portrait of Joseph Turner (1752), at the Chester County Historical Society, shows Wollaston’s skill with shimmery fabrics.
Chester County’s own Benjamin West, born in Springfield in 1738, studied with English portraitist William Williams, who had settled in Philadelphia around 1747. As a teenager, West painted oil portraits in Chester County, such as those of Jane and Robert Morris, c. 1753. Wealthy Philadelphians funded West’s trip to study art in Italy in 1760. West eventually settled in London and never returned. However, by training artists there, including John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart, who later created portraits in Philadelphia, Benjamin West and the wealth of Philadelphia brought international art home.
Christie’s sold a signed Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington for more than $21 million in 2006 and a John Wollaston Portrait of a Lady for $5,400 the same year. Many factors affect the price of a portrait, including the fame of the artist and of the subject, but an anonymous sitter can still be arresting. Especially if the artist captures, to quote Leonardo da Vinci, “the concept of his (or her) mind.”