Fenimore Art Museum Salutes New England Limner
John Brewster Jr.
By Barry Dougherty
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - New England limner John Brewster Jr is about to get his proper due as the Fenimore Art Museum will be showcasing the works of this prolific folk portrait painter, considered by many to be the greatest of his time, through December 31. The exhibition, titled "A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr," highlights the accomplishments of this gifted artist, one who faced extraordinary challenges to ply his craft.
The focus of the exhibition is the "four worlds" in which Brewster's life revolved: his Puritan family, the prominent Federalists whose portraits he painted, the rapidly evolving American art scene and the dawn of American deaf culture. According to Fenimore curator Paul D'Ambrosio, this recognition is long overdue. "There really hasn't been anything done on Brewster since Nina Fletcher Little did her exhibition for the Connecticut Historical Society in 1960. So 45 years for so interesting an individual and so accomplished an artist just seems like more than enough time," he said.
A direct descendent of Elder William Brewster, who brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, John Brewster Jr (1766-1854) was born into a distinguished family. His father was a doctor, as was his brother, Royal. As Harlan Lane, Matthews Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University and author of the Brewster biography A Deaf Artist in Early America (Beacon Press 2004), which became a catalyst for this exhibition, explains, "In some ways he was like the other itinerant painters of his day, but in important ways he was not. He didn't really need the money and consequently he was prepared to spend much more time doing something really depictive of the sitter's personality and circumstances. Whereas most of the itinerant limners, as they are called, couldn't make a living if they did that, they had to move quickly."
For those who were born deaf in Eighteenth Century rural America, predating the development of American Sign Language, communication was a daunting task. To then consider the facts that (many experts believe) he could write to some degree, travel miles of rustic terrain - in many instances alone and carrying the cumbersome tools of his trade, arrange lodging and negotiate fees, all before making one stroke of his brush - is to realize the true scope of his accomplishments.
It is highly probable that we would know about Brewster if he had not been deaf, as there is no doubt that he had an acute eye and gifted hands. However, the idea that his being deaf enhanced his work is an ongoing discussion. "There's a very strong argument that his deafness made his painting better than it otherwise might have been," says D'Ambrosio.
Of course, there is no way to prove that fact, but the curator does offer, "A lot of people look at his portraits and feel a palpable sense of silence about them. Harlan indicates in his book that he sees in the portraits what he calls the management of gaze - the eyes. What I see in Brewster's portraits is the face, it almost has a totemic presence, and it's of such great importance that I have come to believe there must be something to what Harlan is seeing."
The Fenimore exhibition features a unique treasure trove of 40 portraits that Brewster painted during his travels. These rare finds prominently display the genius of this prolific artist. Families counted on his accurate vision to record their likenesses so they could leave an enduring imprint for future generations. As Lane explains, "His Puritan sitters wanted to show off their wealth, so they wanted the silver buckles to be seen and the expensive imported carpet and the beautiful home in which you can define objects seen through the window of the home itself."
Along with five Brewsters that the Fenimore owns, the portraits in the exhibition have been gathered from a variety of public and private locations: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Maine Historical Society, Connecticut Historical Society, Old Sturbridge Village and the Saco Museum. There are pieces on loan from several private collectors as well.
There are several works included in the exhibit that make it all the more exciting. Among them is one of his earliest works, a portrait of Brewster's father and stepmother, Dr John and Ruth Avery Brewster. The inclusion of two full-length portraits - Colonel Thomas Cutts and Elizabeth Scamman Cutts - is a major coup because the two pieces rarely travel. But the jewel in the crown, hands down, is a double portrait - one of Comfort Starr Mygatt and his daughter, Lucy, the other of Mygatt's wife, Lucy, and their son, George. These two paintings are going to be reunited for the first time in 187 years.
Painted in 1799 in Danbury, Conn., the Mygatt portraits descended in different lines of the family. The father and daughter piece is in residence at the Palmer Museum at Penn State University and the mother and son portrait is in a private collection. The reunion of these works marks a very special milestone in folk art history.
All of the pieces in the exhibition, however, offer insight into Brewster's world. As Lane suggests, "His technique was modernized, very resourceful and creative - the poise that his sitters often have, the use of color, which is Cezanne-like, to indicate depth rather than using perspective itself. I think if he weren't deaf he probably would have been a more conventional painter. And the personalities of the sitters probably would have not come across as well."
Children feature prominently in Brewster's portraits, more so perhaps than in the works of his contemporaries. This exhibition features several examples of children's portraits such as "One Shoe Off" - a girl wearing a red shoe on her right foot while holding the left one by its shoelace; a child holding a peach; and Francis O. Watts tenderly holding a bird on a thin blue string. As some historians have pointed out, stylistically, he tends to put almost a halo of light around the children that can be quite winsome. "Unidentified Boy with Book" highlights the often-ethereal quality Brewster presented when painting children.
D'Ambrosio concurs that it is the child sitter who reaped the full benefits of the artist's eye. "In Brewster's portraits of children, we see such a direct engagement of you, the viewer, by the subject in the portrait that's not as evident in many of the other great portrait painters. Some of the documented sources on Brewster mention that he had an engaging personality and an ingenious mind; that he was a very likeable character.
"My feeling," he continued, "is that children were drawn to him because he was different and because he was more animated. Ordinary run-of-the-mill adults don't capture your attention at all, but put a child in front of a clown or an actor or a musician or somebody a little bit out of the ordinary who has some sense of animation and they are just riveted. Painting children is the most difficult thing to do, not just because they're different in terms of their body proportion, flesh tones and all that, but you can't get them to sit still. For some reason, I think that they paid Brewster more attention because of who he was and how he communicated, and he was able to capture just exquisite likenesses of these kids."
The portrait of Mrs. Joseph McLellan features a simple subject with bold detail. According to Lane, "She must be 60 or so, and it is just so magnificently done. She's got a fan and the opening of the fan and the decoration on the fan are exquisite. Brewster was very, very good with lace. He did a lot of things with very fine lace. It's just a very accomplished painting and the sitter's personality comes through."
With the absence of a formal background, the viewer's eye seeks out the fan and face of this portrait, a Brewster trait that Lane finds compelling. "I think that was one of his techniques, defocus the background so that the person comes through in the picture. I think he does that often. With the Mygatts, for example, there are washes of color in the background to keep you focused on what's important."
Brewster painted his last known portrait in 1834, around the time that Louis Daguerre invented his photographic process, putting many limners out of work. "It might have been partly Daguerre whose influence was diminishing limners in general," suggests Lane regarding Brewster's retirement, "but it might also have been that he was getting on in years and that he was not inclined to work as hard or travel as much as he had in an earlier time. So it might have been some of both."
Approximately 250 Brewster portraits have been discovered and Lane thinks more finds are in the offing. "The way most of these have been found is that somebody came in with this painting from the attic and said, 'Is this worth something?' I think this is going to go on," he said.
Brewster's sitters reveal more than the legacy they had intended to impart by hiring a limner. Each painting in this exhibit is of someone who looked into Brewster's eyes, leaving his own imprint reflected in their gaze. For D'Ambrosio this exhibition is a well-deserved homage. "When you consider what he accomplished in terms of the portraits that he painted and when you think about how critical communication is to the creation of someone's most personal possession - which is the likeness of themselves, their family, their children - you really begin to understand Brewster's accomplishment."
The Fenimore Art Museum is on Lake Road, Route 80. For information, 888-547-1450 or www.fenimoreartmuseum.org.