Almost the entire history of American art can be read as a progression of responses to European art. During the country's early days, artists naturally looked to the mother country, England, for example and inspiration. Colonial painters and craftsmen studied books and prints for information on the latest styles from abroad. Just before the mid-eighteenth century, British émigré artists began arriving to ply their trade in America, where they had heard there was growing demand for luxury goods. And by the last quarter of the century, American artists began traveling to London and taking the Grand Tour through Italy and France, seeking first hand knowledge of the art they used as the basis of their productions.
In seventeenth century New England, artists were usually considered common craftsman on par with a blacksmith or tailor. The Italian Renaissance idea of the genius artist had not yet taken hold in places like Boston or New York. Therefore, it is not surprising that the creator of the most notable American masterpiece of the 1600s, "Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary" is unknown. The artist left the piece unsigned, which was a common practice at the time.
After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which marked the official beginning of the American national identity, the new nation needed a history, and part of that history would be expressed visually. Most of early American art consists of history painting and portraits. Painters such as Gilbert Stuart made portraits of the newly elected government officials, while John Singleton Copley was painting emblematic portraits for the increasingly prosperous merchant class, and painters such as John Trumbull were making large battle scenes of the Revolutionary War. Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773 and served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. He began his painting career in 1777. John Trumbull went to England to study briefly with Benjamin West in 1780, returning in 1784 for a longer period. The critical era of his life, and that of his finest work, was from 1784 to 1794.
John Singleton Copley was an American painter, born presumably in Boston, Massachusetts and a son of Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, both Irish. He is famous for his portrait paintings of important figures in colonial New England, depicting in particular middle-class subjects. His paintings were innovative in their tendency to depict artifacts relating to these individuals' lives. Copley was about fourteen and his stepfather had recently died, when he made the earliest of his portraits now preserved, a likeness of his half-brother Charles Pelham, good in color and characterization though it has in its background accessories which are somewhat out of drawing. It is a remarkable work to have come from so young a hand. Copley began to paint historical pieces as well as portraits. His first foray into this genre was Brook Watson Rescued from a Shark, (shown here) its subject based on an incident related to the artist by Brook Watson, who had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana harbor as a 14-year-old boy.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, artists primarily painted landscapes and portraits in a realistic style. Neither art schools nor internationally recognized painters existed in the colonies; so, many early American artists traveled to Europe for training. While abroad, as students at an academy or apprentices to a master, they could learn anatomy and perspective, the proportion of oil to pigment, and the touch of the brush.
While there may have been other female artists at work in the colonies prior to 1709, there are none on record that were paid for their compositions. Henrietta Johnson (1674-1729) of Charleston, South Carolina sold portraits to neighbors and friends, the elite French Huguenots living in the city, to help support her household. She is noteworthy for being the first portraitist in the southern colonies and also for her use of pastels, at the time, considered a lesser medium--rather than oils. She is therefore also the colonies' first pastel artist.