As painting became a respectable profession in America, artists began to celebrate their workplaces
IN THE BEGINNING America had little use for the fine arts. Nomadic painters roamed the land and provided signs, decoration, and the occasional likeness of a sitter. But it wasn’t long before they contrived to establish more stable working places. In Boston, before the Revolution, John Smibert sustained a studio by selling art supplies and exhibiting copies of old master paintings and plaster casts of ancient sculptures. In Philadelphia, Charles Willson Peale displayed his paintings together with such scientific curiosities as stuffed birds and mastodon bones. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some artists found it possible to maintain their studios just by painting pictures. The subject of the artist in his studio was a commonplace of European art: Americans, in adapting that theme, brought it home to their own time and place. The period costumes, the paraphernalia of the historical past, were intermixed with the present. There were the inevitable studio props—and in the Gilded Age these could be sumptuous indeed—and an alternatively heroic or everyday view of the artist’s own role. The studio was the proud arena of the profession: a workplace, a salon, a storehouse of accumulated treasure and, rendered on canvas, a powerful mode of self-assertion.