Skip directly to content

Genesis of the American Identity

The longtime director of the independent research library Folger Shakespeare Library, Louis Booker Wright wrote and cooperated in writing numerous books on the American colonial period.  His areas of expertise also extended to Shakespearean literature in which he also took a great interest. His scholarly pursuits were honored by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation when he received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928.

A relatively understudied area in both the realms of art and American history, colonial art receives much influence from the many nations that attempted to stake their claims in the New World. According to Louis B. Wright in The Arts in America: The Colonial Period, this “conservative adherence to ancient traditions” was a result of many factors that inhibited colonists from deriving their own distinctive style of art early on including but not limited to: the lack of practiced artisans, the absence of a positive aesthetic in their environment, and a conservative adherence to traditions.1 However, once the colonists were able to establish a stable foothold on the continent, artisans began to immigrate to cities such as Charleston and Philadelphia, the latter which would become the foremost culture center of the English colonies. Combining aspects of prevailing English styles and styles of other nations, colonists at the same to developed unique art forms while maintaining traditional ones.

Beginning with a discussion of the historical background behind the settling of the American continent, Wright remarks on the overbearing simplicity of American aesthetics. Because early colonies such as Jamestown suffered extremely high casualties from diseases, starvation, and native raids, most settlers never concerned themselves with art or other fine crafts as survival procured a more urgent concern. For example, the houses, or rather, the huts of Jamestown settlers were primitive and made of crotched trees and mud. Most settlers were either religious dissenters such as Puritans and Calvinists or “ne’er-do-wells” – men who caused problems for the family.2 Not until conditions stabilized did colonists start to build houses such as the log cabins of the Scandinavians. Farm work also prevented colonists from partaking in artistic activities. Incredibly laborious and requiring long hours of commitment, tedious crop cultivation made for the extensive use of indentured servants before 1700. Extensive demand for unskilled labor put less value in the arts. Once slaves became the dominant source of labor, they too were too unskilled to put any value in arts. Ill trained, the quality of their work “was often short of perfection” and thus did not prove bountiful for art connoisseurs.3 At first owing influences to their many European backgrounds, colonists began to develop a more Anglicized style with the passing of the Navigation Acts. England had almost complete control of whatever exports and imports including fine arts. Wright accounts for this extraordinary phenomenon of the “capacity of British culture for absorbing and dominating all other cultures.” 4Most books in American library were written in English also attributing to the dominance of the British culture. Also touched upon is the influence of religion on early American life. Education institutions such as Harvard University were first established to serve as education centers for clergymen. Many acts such as the Old Deluder Laws required children to be educated so as to not become influenced by Satan’s dark intentions.

Moving on to highlight more prominently the architecture of the colonial period, the book discusses the duality of American architecture combining aspects of the New World and the Old World. Architects in no way were headed by a single style and critics often contradicted each other. For example, the Georgian buildings of the College of William and Mary, while admired as great architectural feats today, were deemed by Thomas Jefferson as “rude, misshapen piles which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns.”5 The climate and prominent natural resources affected the architecture of certain areas. For instance, there was a lack of good adhesive in New England, so stone and brickwork was rare. Brick buildings were prevalent in Philadelphia because they were fire resistant in the fire prone area. In addition, many like the Dutch and the Flemish preferred materials that were used in their mother countries. Excellent brick builders, the Dutch in New Amsterdam built houses of various brick bonds by interspersing stretchers – or long sides – with headers – or short ends. The Swedes and the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas also borrowed from their European counterparts and built hewn log houses. Progressing towards a period of greater wealth, the great architecture of the time existed in mansions of the plantations of the south and the Palladian architecture of Northern cities. The influences of the Italian Renaissance reached England very slowly, a result of the “break with Rome under Henry VIII.”6 Greek and Roman revival architecture especially those of Andrea Palladio began influencing England and her colonies just as colonists began to acquire sufficient wealth to build mansions. Houses adorned with Roman modillions and Greek columns became familiar sights in large cities such as New York and Philadelphia. As the Middle Georgian Period spanned out, Greek revival architecture became more concentric on neo- Palladanism with Doric columns and curving colonnades such as Jefferson’s Monticello home.

Although the author describes painters “to have lagged behind the accomplishments of builders,” colonial artists made some contributions to the artistic achievements of the colonists.7 Architecture and decorative arts, although arguably equal in elegance to artwork, “remained basically utilitarian.”8 They still served a readily apparent purpose in the lives of the colonists as they needed houses to live in and utensils to eat with. Early colonial life did not provide any leisure for artistic tastes as most people still concerned themselves with basic necessities. Little is known of any active painters active in the colonies before 1700 as fewer than four hundred works from that period still survive today. At the time, most artworks were portraits, and most people had their portraits done on return visits to England because of the absence of trained painters in the colonies.  Only until the 18th century did trained painters like Henrietta Johnston and Jeremiah Theus begin to establish themselves in major cities. The liberal environment of 18th century Philadelphia was the perfect breeding ground for aspiring painters. Still there existed those like Robert Feke of Long Island who received no formal training as a painter but still managed to make a name for himself. Portraits at the time were painted with a flatness mimicking the court style paintings of England.

Regal settings with drapes and baroque furniture almost always accompanied the person in the portrait. John Singleton Copley of Boston highly stylized his art by removing traditional props and presented his subjects with objects that would more likely be found accompanying them. For example, he often painted people holding objects that pertained to their respective trades like Paul Revere and his silver teapot. Many others followed suit and rejected the courtly formulae overly sensuous aspects. John Trumbull found great success in his twelve paintings of the American Revolution which he spent five years completing. His works generally included heroes dying heroic deaths and scaled down figures to enhance the overall emotional nature of his battle scenes. Although recognized as an artistically competent place, the colonies did not develop a genuinely American tradition for art.

Making up for the lack of style in painting, decorative arts of the colonies were widely acknowledged. The author describes decorative arts as the “major American artistic accomplishment of the period” and claims that American craftsmen “designed and executed some of the finest furniture and silver made anywhere.”9 Most craftsmen worked in New England and the North in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, or New York. Although becoming an international sensation in the 18th century, furniture first established its foundations as a colonial powerhouse in the 17th century where modified Jacobean tastes dominated. Borrowing from Belgian and French influences along with typical Anglo-Flemish styles, most furniture was painted black. The defining Anglo-American form of furniture resulted from the luxurious baroque works of the William and Mary Style. The later Queen Anne style became prominent with the use of cherry and maple materials and many styles of legs including the cabriole, curved rococo, and New England. Furniture was almost exclusively influenced by the English, apparent in the names of the styles. Even in the highly centralized Dutch settlement of New York, the English styles dominated. Silversmiths first immigrated to Virginia as early as 1608 but surviving works were from New England. Flourishing in the late 17th century onwards, American silver pieces borrowed from the heavy decorations of Renaissance works. English restoration work inspired the repousse technique which would come to define 17th century New England silver. Unlike the furniture there, the silver in New York had chief characteristics borrowed from the Dutch like pictorial engravings of fruits and birds. Philadelphia emerged also as a center of silver making with notables such as John Nys and Caesar Ghiselin settling here. Drawing away from the pictorial engravings, silverwork in the Queen Anne style period adopted a smoother look. The dynamic form of colonial silver making became welcome in all parts of Europe as well as the Americas.

Wright attempts to dissuade readers from taking on the view that a distinctive “American” way of life developed before the midst of the Revolution.  “Americans” he proclaims were deeply involved with their counterparts overseas and borrowed much of their customs and traditions that manifested themselves in the art of the colonial period. His purpose in the book is to explore a relatively unscathed area in the history of art. Wright remarks on the prospect that most historians, while exploring much of European art in the 17th and 18th centuries, do not touch upon colonial art at all. He states that “much ink has been wasted in lamenting the lack of artistic interest in the early days of America” while not explaining the art at all.10 He also maintains that “as a result of [King William and Queen Anne’s War] – British colonies flourished.”11 This contrasts traditional American attitudes that deemed both wars instrumental in bringing about an environment in which colonists were less equal to their mainland peers.

The author’s point of view draws from the period in which the book was published –the 1960s. The historiography at the time was predominantly New Left as the onset of the controversial Vietnam War caused many to distrust the traditional American views of their distinctive fervor for freedom inherited from the founding fathers. In the book, Wright notes the deep influences of the British on American values, a claim that would fit the New Left historiography. Historians in a time before him would fashion a glorified version of how colonists developed a front of freedom and expression through their art and not touch upon how “the civilization that the colonies developed was thoroughly British.”12 He describes the almost exclusive dependence on England as the colonies’ source of artistic expression. No major standalone American art ever gained popular acclaim as only those with influences from Britain found their places in the markets. Later living in California, Wright absorbed some of the liberal ideas there and incorporated them into his writing. 

Charles Coleman Sellers of Dickinson College describes Wright’s book as “purposeful, authoritative, and coherent.”13 Sellers, although consistently praising all parts of the book, highlights the section on architecture as being the “most satisfactory.”14 More oriented towards the casual general reader than researching scholars, the book is deemed a rather enjoyable read. Sellers distinguishes this book from other similarly cast works by approving of its concentrated sophistication in contrast to works with random illustrations. Describing the uniqueness in the Wright’s interpretation, Seller praises Wright’s view that colonial art reflected a Democratic and utilitarian nature while still managing to be honored today.

With a wealth of images, Wright manages to construct a thoroughly informative piece on the arts of the colonial period. Each illustration serves its purpose of demonstrating the styles apparent during colonial America. Managing to touch upon the full spectrum of arts in the period, the reader receives a handsome introduction into a subject area that he or she would not normally touch upon. Wright’s diction although compelling, is not so erudite to the point that he is incomprehensible to the average reader. His argument that actions of the English government that previous historians supposed hindered the prosperity of the colonists actually allotted for greater progress proves daring and admirable. Such impositions like the Navigation Acts made the colonists increasingly dependent on English trade and therefore spread English art forms, philosophies, and other ideas to the colonies. Also, the well-detailed first section of the book offers the reader a wealth of background information so that he or she is not overwhelmed with the information presented in the latter sections. Although only 348 pages long, the book does not make any hasty generalizations, and Wright fervently attempts to dissuade the reader that any monolithic view of art in the colonies ever existed. He is sure to distinguish between dominant styles in New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South. Ranging from the environment to the colonists’ innately religious nature, Wright establishes many details that explain why and how American art came to be what it is.

The art in this piece draws away from the notion that colonists in the American colonies drew upon uniquely American values. Most, if not all of the artistic styles of the colonies, were borrowed from the English. Only after the onset of the American Revolution did “a multiplicity of new influences” affect American life.15 Now harboring a deep resentment for those that ruthlessly taxed them, Americans turned to allies such as the French for inspiration in the arts. These developments, although not uniquely American, would pave the path for the future promise of the development of a distinctive culture. Colonial paintings were relatively lackluster and had no profound impact on the world. However, decorative arts such as silver and furniture making proved that the American colonies were not artistically depraved. American silverware and furniture drew the eyes of many around the world, and the colonies became known as a place where these decorative wares could be found in great numbers and in high quality. The architecture of the colonies also became relatively far reaching as it drew even more attention to the Palladian and Greek revival styles. Almost all state capitols reflect these styles and even some governmental seats around the world have followed suit.

Louis B. Wright’s The Arts in America: The Colonial Period gives a holistic overview of a period of time left relatively unscathed by historians and scholars of art. As colonists continued to search for “a perfect combination of democracy and the arts,” their artistic styles and abilities continued to evolve until finally achieving a state of coherent finesse. 16

1. Wright, Louis. The Arts in America: The Colonial Period. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. 16.
2. Wright, Louis. 6.
3. Wright, Louis. 15.
4. Wright, Louis. 30.
5. Wright, Louis. 41.
6. Wright, Louis. 75.
7. Wright, Louis. 149.
8. Wright, Louis. 149.
9. Wright, Louis. 253.
10. Wright, Louis. 4.
11. Wright, Louis. 33.
12. Wright, Louis. 30.
13. Sellers, Charles C. Rev. of The Arts in America: The Colonial Period. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 91.2 (1967): 214-      15. Print. 214.
14. Sellers, Charles C. 214.
15. Wright, Louis. The Arts in America: The Colonial Period. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. 36.
16. Wright, Louis. 4.