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Monday, May 7, 2018

Matthew Pratt

The American School, 1765, Matthew Pratt. The standing figure is West, the figure in front of the blank canvas is that of Pratt.
One of the tasks I do often in writing for the Internet is to evaluate artists and their work. That would include unknown artists from hundreds of years ago to the up-and-coming contemporary artists of today. Probably the most difficult art to evaluate is that of the portrait artist. At first reading, that sounds like it should be fairly cut-and-dried. Either it looks like the subject or it doesn't. That's true, except when we have no idea what the subject of the portrait looked like, and sometimes no idea even whom the subject might be. That opens up a third unknown. Sometimes the portrait seems not at all attractive, raising the questions, was the subject really that ugly (male or female) or was the artist simply inept in his or her rendering. A case could be made for both factors being a problem. Adding to that is the fact that most good portrait artists tend to flatter their subjects to some degree. Thus, the unattractive sitter may, in fact, have been even more unattractive that what the artist has portrayed. That's especially a problem when the artist is largely self-taught. Was he or she simply a poor student, or did they have a bad instructor (or both).
Matthew Pratt had a tendency to exaggerate the length of the neck in painting his female subjects. Was this poor anatomy or was it a matter of style demanded by his subjects?
I've encountered this quandary in various art periods, but never more than in dealing with American portrait artists of the colonial period. There's seldom a problem with the real masters of the 18th century American art scene--John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West (above), Gilbert Stuart, John Smibert, Charles Wilson Peale, or John Trumbull (among others). They were all excellent examples of artists who rose above the difficulties of a nascent art world in the pre-revolutionary period. The problems mentioned above arise in evaluating the second tier of American portrait artist, men like Ralph Earl, his brother, James, William Jennys, Jacob Eichholtz, Edward Hicks, and Matthew Pratt. The list of American itinerant artist is surprisingly long, their talents falling across the entire range from godawful to merely somewhat uneven. The Philadelphia painter, Matthew Pratt is a good example of what I mean.
Matthew Pratt, Self-portrait,
ca. 1764
Pratt was born in Philadelphia in the year 1734. His father was a goldsmith, his mother, Rebecca Claypoole, the sister of the artist James Claypoole Sr., a sometimes portrait painter but also a housepainter and galzier (which says a lot about his talent as a portrait artist). Perhaps his primary claim to fame was that he took on his nephew as an apprentice when the boy was a mere lad of fifteen. Pratt learned from his uncle the basic aspects of portrait painting along with a healthy dose of business acumen. In 1764 Pratt escort-ed his cousin, Betsey Shewell to Eng-land for her marriage to the American expatriate artist, Benjamin West. West was gaining a distinguished reputation in England. Pratt stayed on in England for two and a half years as a pupil and colleague to West. It was during this period that he painted one of his best known works, The American School (top).

Madonna of St. Jerome, 1764-66, Matthew Pratt
Despite the title of the painting, while in England, Pratt developed the style of the London School of artists. Although Pratt was four years older than West, he became his first student in a long line of others, as well as West's assistant. In London, Pratt also painted his one and only (insofar as I can tell) religious work, Madonna of St. Jerome (above), which strangely utilized figures and images from both the first and fourth centuries--acceptable, perhaps, if the work was seen as allegorical, but not so much if Pratt intended it as a biblical scene.

Thomas Paine, Matthew Pratt
Although Pratt never gained the same degree of notoriety as his teacher, West, he still left a large oeuvre of works behind him. Pratts' catalogue includes portraits of famous early Americans such as West, the essayist, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin. Pratt's style is often difficult to identify, but it is clear that he was influ-enced by both American and English painters. In 1770, Pratt once more jour-neyed to England and Ireland when he had to claim an inheritance for his wife. While he was there, Pratt painted a few portraits in both Dublin and Liverpool. Pratt also worked in New York from 1771 to 1772 where he was commission to paint a num-ber of government portraits. While he was there, Pratt became friends with John Singleton Copley. The following year, Pratt traveled to Virginia and worked briefly in Williamsburg (below).

Elizabeth Gay (Mrs. Thomas Bolling) with twins Sarah & Ann, 1773, Matthew Pratt--not one of his better works.
By most standards, Pratt was mainly a portrait painter, but he could not live off his income from portraits alone. After the Revolution, Pratt's career slowed, despite the fact that he went into a business partnership. As a partner in Pratt, Rutter and Co., his business offered portraiture and ornamental painting. In order to support himself, Pratt would also paint signs for business owners. These were often hailed for their beauty and for the great skill in which they were created. Pratt created signs for taverns, counting houses, and other shops with a skill matched by few in Philadelphia during his lifetime. During the latter part of his career, Pratt became more known for these unusual signs than for his portraits. The artist died in 1805.

Mrs. Samuel Powel, Matthew Pratt
During his lifetime, Pratt was said to have created a considerable number of por-traits, though today very few are at-tributed to him. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he may not have signed all of his works. The only painting attributed to him that is signed is The American School. This leaves a great possibility for many of Pratt's unknown and otherwise unauth-enticated works to surface all over New England, Virginia, England, Ireland and possibly even Jamaica. As to the point I was making in the beginning, even though he was not self-taught and displays a significant dose of English style portraiture, Matthew Pratt must still be considered an itinerant painter, albeit one of the better practitioners of the art. Thus, as exemplified in the two female portraits below, it would seem he did not do women well (the sober, but sensitive Mrs. Samuel Powel portrait, above, seeming to be an exception). Perhaps he was above flattering his subjects, or, on the other hand, maybe they were every bit as homely looking as Pratt rendered them.

Two of Matthew Pratt's long-necked matrons. This trait, whatever its source, does not appear in the artist's male portraits. Maybe Pratt was sick the day West taught the female anatomy.


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