The Style and Poise of a Colonial American Portrait Painter
April 3, 2014 admin 0 Comments
Other than his large body of work, not much is known about Joseph Blackburn. The 18th century English portrait painter left the world with over 150 documented works of art, which allow us to learn about the artistic style of a man who, in the mid-1700s gained notoriety and esteem on two continents.
How he developed his techniques is unknown. There is no record of him doing an apprenticeship to jumpstart his career. His style seemed to be adopted from a drypoint tone method known as mezzotint. He combined this approach with portrait poses that were comparable to baroque and rococo artists like Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Peter Lely and Thomas Hudson. Regardless, his style was sought out by wealthy elite as well as merchants, politicians, and military officers; in a seven year span (1755-1762) he received over 60 commissions.
To his patrons, Blackburn was known for accentuating grace and poise. This was a high value to prosperous families who stood at the helm of the first industrial revolution. Blackburn’s style and use of pastel colors increased the appearances of his subjects. The portraitist had a unique ability to bring his paintings to life by adding fine details. For instance, he portrayed silk, lace, strands of pearls, and vases with great attention. He has many surviving works that poignantly express the traits of beautiful women. By sitting ladies in fancy settings with lavish outfits and accessories, he exaggerated their wealth. In addition, he used natural, textured settings as backdrops. Sometimes he would use garden backgrounds, which may have been common in English art but seemed new to America.
Beyond the appeal of his style, patrons were drawn to Blackburn’s character. He carried himself in a graceful manner just like the people he would paint. He was also clever and engaging in conversation which made him popular wherever he went. It seems that his likeability led to success in England, parts of America and other areas of the developing world. In the course of a decade he spent time in Bermuda, Newport, Boston and Portsmouth.
Even though his personality helped his success, his style and settings were the dominate reasons people sought his services. When arriving in America, he had knowledge of London fashion. He also brought with him many techniques that had not yet been seen. At the time, colonies were transitioning from a predominantly puritan lifestyle. Blackburn’s art was infused with imagination, movement, light colors, lavish décor, extravagant outfits and natural elements. Moving into the 19th century, this approach grew in popularity.
When Blackburn returned to England at the twilight of his career, people continued to follow the style he brought to the American colonies. A man whom Blackburn was able to influence gained his own fame at this time. John Singleton Copley grasped Blackburn’s rococo style and some say he executed portraits better than Blackburn.
Leaving Copley to extend his lavish style throughout developing America, Blackburn went home to England in 1763. Unfortunately, he quickly found that his rococo style was no longer relevant in areas like London. Still, he remained true to his lavish style and wanderlust. He completed another 16 portraits in England, Wales and Dublin.
Despite the small amount of information recorded on Joseph Blackburn, it is necessary to use his artwork to weave together the story of his life and success. With style and personality he attained a fine life. Whether he was in England or America, he was always poised for success.
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