As They Saw Themselves


The man who paints his own likeness in a sense turns inside out the famous line of Robert Burns. He is given the gift to show others how he sees himself. This is a revelation of no small interest or importance. We see the man as he idealizes, romanticizes, or possibly disguises himself. And we see him in the mirror of his times. Every artist is to some extent a prisoner of the fashion, the aesthetics, and the painting idiom of his age. So in addition to revealing the appearance and personality, the style and technique, of the individual artist, a self-portrait gives us insight into its era and illuminates aspects of America’s social and cultural history with the settings and accouterments that embellish it.

Consider, for example, the self-portrait of “Captain” Thomas Smith, opposite, a gentleman of shadowy history, believed to have been a mariner who came to Boston from Bermuda about 1650. We do not know anything about the naval engagement at the upper left of the canvas. We do know that Smith painted this portrait of himself and that this vigorous image is an important document not only for Thomas Smith but for the history of American art as well. The likenesses of the first decades of New England portraiture after 1620 showed dependence upon the flat and decorative style of Tudor England. This almost medieval style had lingered on in the rural areas of England and, transplanted with the first colonists, had enjoyed its last flowering in New England. Smith’s portrait, on the other hand, is conceived in terms of three-dimensional forms in space and indicates knowledge of continental baroque styles. The difference between this portrait and its New England predecessors is the difference between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

Group portraits frequently reveal even more of time and place, of fashion and circumstance, than the familiar bust portrait form. When the artist puts himself in the assembled company, he has a natural interest in surrounding the group with elegant furnishings, which bring with them a wealth of social and cultural detail.

The Philadelphian Matthew Pratt painted The American School (overleaf) almost a hundred years after Thomas Smith’s likeness. His work—with its Chippendale furniture and exquisite dress—not only shows us something of social life in the prospering colonies but also demonstrates how the colonial portrait form had altered with the application of a little London polish. The drawing is precise but larger and freer than that of the limners who painted America’s earliest portraits. Pratt was the first native American artist to study abroad and bring his skills back to his native country.


George Hollingsworth’s family picture (pages 72-73) is equally the portrait of an era, a locale, and a family, as well as a key to the fashions of a place and time: Boston, about 1840. The grave demeanors and the air of solid and sober prosperity in the artist’s detailed presentation illustrate both the character and the tastes of this New England family, dominated by father Mark, “a man of quiet strength whose Quaker training did not encourage the easy unfurling of emotions,” and mother Waitstill, a woman of wit and spirit who is said to have remarked in her later years “Say what you please, I call life a running fight.”

The bust self-portrait generally does not convey as much information as the group portrait, nor is its historical context so explicitly stated. The portrait fashion of an era, however, is immediately apparent, and we can tell a great deal about the appearance and personality of the subject. For instance, Washington Allston (page 74), considered America’s first major romantic artist, was a painter of landscape reveries based upon myth and history. His portraits were executed mainly for practice or for personal mementos. Nevertheless they reveal the personality—kind and sensitive, urbane and modest—that inspired Allston’s friends to tributes of exceptional eloquence.