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“For a Noble Man, a Prince”: Images and Identity in Colonial America

Phyllis Hunter, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Paul Staiti, Mount Holyoke College

Colonial Visual Culture

Colonists in British North America increasingly lived with objects that came from a variety of places-some imported, others made in the colonies. One historian has talked about an “empire of goods.” Indeed visual materials were a key part of that new consumer culture. Impressive pictures, such as this copy of King George III’s coronation portrait, streamed across the Atlantic. This imposing state portrait was hung in the Ballroom of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, the home of the colony’s English governor and site of numerous receptions and public events. All along the Atlantic seaboard well-to-do colonists built new “Georgian” style homes with imposing facades modeled after ancient Greek and Roman buildings; patrons commissioned portraits to line the walls of these new homes and establish their family stature in this newly competitive society. Some painters immigrated to the colonies to satisfy this market while others, such as John Singleton Copley, were home grown talents. Domestic objects-picture frames, silverware, armchairs, textiles, and other products produced by craftsmen-featured new highly ornate “Rococo” styles with elegant curves that spoke of the makers’ skill and the owners’ cosmopolitan taste. This Philadelphia Side Chair, for example, was made of mahogany (an expensive imported wood) by immigrant cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck, a recent arrival from London, who was drawn to the prospering community of artisans in America. Specialized woodworkers added the detailed carving that covered almost every surface and upholsterers fashioned the plush silk-covered seat from imported fabric.

By the Revolutionary era, even middling families were commissioning portraits and acquiring objects that might exhibit their refined taste. Throughout the colonies, not just in the prosperous port cities, families in the middle of the social hierarchy might expand their house and build a hallway to provide greater familial privacy, or remove the bed from the “best room” so that they had a separate parlor. In such a parlor the family might display a portrait of George III such as the Pether mezzotint (a copper plate engraving that allowed mass reproduction of works of art). Middling households could take advantage of a local craftsmen such as Eliphalet Chapin who had returned to East Windsor, Connecticut, after receiving his training in Philadelphia. Chapin made sophisticated and stylish furniture for his Connecticut clients with details such as carved claw feet, shells above the crest (top) rail, curved legs, and complex back panels-but he also made compromises to suit non-elite budgets by sometimes using cheaper locally available woods and simplifying construction details. Some portrait painters also took to the countryside to find clients among the ministers and magistrates of rural society. Painting became a visible way for colonists to display their emerging social identities.

By the mid-eighteenth century, families at all levels of society were enjoying a wide range of consumer goods. For rural families, the woods might be cheaper and the furniture styles less up- to- date, such as this Delaware Valley ladder back chair designed for everyday use. The chair is in a plain style, but is still ornamented with shaped slats on the back and turnings on the legs (done on a lathe or machine tool to turn a block of wood to cut or sand it). Printed materials also circulated into the country. Farmers relied upon that most essential of colonial publications, the almanac, for their weather forecasts and astrological predictions. Crude woodcuts (a form of print where an image is carved out of a block of wood by cutting away everything but the lines or shapes to be printed) graced the pages of the almanac, such as this portrait of King George III.