Early colonial art initially relied on artists from Europe who primarily painted portraits and historical moments as well as some landscapes in a style based mainly on English painting.
One of the first painters to visit America was John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593), who made important watercolor records of Native American life on the East coast. An English artist and early pioneer, White first arrived on the shore of present-day North Carolina in 1585, acting as artist and mapmaker. During his time at Roanoke Island he made a number of watercolor sketches of the surrounding landscape and the native Algonkin peoples.In 1587, White became governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed attempt at a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, known to history as the Lost Colony. This was the earliest effort to establish a permanent English colony in the New World. White’s granddaughter Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the Western Hemisphere.
In the later part of the year, the settlers pressed White to return to England “for the better and sooner obtaining of supplies, and other necessaries.” He was prevailed upon to sail, “much against his will,” in order to seek help.
In the early years of the Colonial period, most artists were officers in the army and navy, whose training included sketching landscapes. Eventually, as the settlements grew, communities were large enough to support professional artists, mostly portrait painters.
Religious art in the late Baroque style was preferred in the Spanish territories. While Native American cultures continued to produce art in their various traditions.The Father of American Painting, Benjamin West (1738 – 1820), was an historical painter. He was active in England where he influenced a number of artists from America, including John Copley.
John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) was most noted for his portrait paintings. Copley is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America. His works were innovative, depicting artifacts relating to his subjects’ lives. His skill for painting startling likenesses of persons and things, he came to define a realist art tradition in America.
Feeling Inspired? Colonial America Art Activity
Introduce students to the concept of Realism in contrast to Impressionism. This resource is helpful: Activity 1 A Real Impression.
Ask students to choose a photo to use as a reference (an animal, a person, or a still life). Then students should attempt to create a painting or drawing that is as close to the original photo as possible, using these components:
- hard and soft edges
- difference in value
- blending and shading
After completing a realist work to the best of their abilities, students will complete a second piece in the style of impressionism, focusing less on line and edges and more on the overall lights and darks in the composition.
This post is part of a 10-post series, providing an overview of the history of American art from Pre-Colonial times to today, including multiple art forms:
- wood carvings
- editorial cartoons
Moving chronologically through All American History curriculum, each post will summarize the art trends and movements popular during the period and feature one or two artists from that time period. Plus I will provide a related art lesson or project that you can enjoy with your students.