Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Robert Feke

The Family of Isaac Royall, 1741, Robert Feke (one of his earliest).
Robert Feke Self-portrait 1741-45
One of the realizations that comes from traveling abroad is that of just how young our American nation really is. Italy, for instance, has an art history more than two thousand years old. France, if you count the Lascaux cave paintings, may well be ten times as long. On this side of the Atlantic, even if you include Colonial art, you're talking barely three-hundred years. Time and again I've looked at a Colonial era painting and misjudged it's age, thinking it was much older than it was. Sometimes I've been off by as much as a century. Some might be surprised to realize that the earliest colonial paintings were tavern signs, and even there we're talking about "art" from the early 1700s. In the area of sculpture, such art was in the form of grave stones. When painting developed in Americas it was in the form of portraits, though virtually nothing along this line was painting in the English colonies dating from the 17th century.

Faith Savage Waldo Cornelius, 1750, Joseph Badger

Mary Winthrop Wanton, ca. 1740,
Robert Feke
Mrs. William Dudley Elizabeth
Davenport, 1729, John Smibert

A portrait by an unknown artist,
ca. 1747. The "state of the art"
typical around the time Feke
began his career.
Many of the first Colonial era portrait artists were anonymous. In looking at some of their work you can quickly understand why (right). Two of the earliest to actually sign their names to their paintings were Robert Feke and John Smibert (Smibert was somewhat earlier than Feke). Feke began painting about 1741, perhaps with the portrait of himself (top, left). His first big commission, that of The Family of Isaac Royall (top), also dates from 1741 when he moved to Boston and set up shop. Smibert was his main competitor. Smibert was good (above, left), but Feke was better (above, right), though the difference between them sometimes comes dangerously close to splitting hairs. Only the portraits of Joseph Badger (above) even begins to match those of Smibert and Feke, and only as distant third at that. Boston was probably the most economically flourishing of all the Colonial cities, and where there is money, there is art.

Young Benjamin Franklin, 1748,
Robert Feke
Feke's portraits were exceptional for the mid-18th century. He'd conquered human anatomy, learned to paint textiles and all manner of feminine finery, was a master of extraneous details (such as the table covering in the Royall family painting), and from all indications, developed adequate skills in capturing a likeness. Though it's impossible to judge the accuracy of Feke's likenesses, it's axiomatic that a portrait artist simply doesn't paint portraits if he or she hasn't mastered that basic skill. Robert Feke (born in 1705) was younger than his portrait competitor by some seventeen years. Smibert was born in 1688 and died in 1751, just one year before Feke. Both men improved remarkably over the course of their careers (especially Smibert). Feke left behind only about 60 portraits from his brief, eleven-year career.
Paul Revere, 1770, John Singleton Copley--influenced by Robert Feke
Given the state of the art of portraiture at the time, painters as talented as Smibert and Feke had no shortage of wealthy merchants wanting to be immortalized in paint. Smibert was an imported, academically trained painter, born in England, who had studied portraiture there an elsewhere in Europe during the 1720s. Consequently, one would expect Smibert's work to be more highly finished and more accomplished in appearance. It wasn't. At best, it was simply more British. Feke, being self-taught, was apparently a fast-learner as well. The improvement in his latter portraits over his early work in just the eleven years before his death in 1752 is remarkable. These two artist, but especially Feke, took art of portraiture from the primitive level of anonymous painters to that of Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley in little more than thirty years.


No comments:

Post a Comment