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With a style described as quietly absorbing, haunting, and starkly direct, portraitist John Brewster Jr. is considered one of the most prolific early American folk painters. Born in Hampton, Connecticut, in 1766, his budding talent was first acknowledged in his early twenties and described as “genius.” Among contemporaries such as Winthrop Chandler and Rufus Hathaway, Brewster stands out not just because of his talent and style but also because he was deaf, and had many obstacles to overcome in a world before American Sign Language existed.
We know little about Brewster’s childhood, but in his twenties, after showing signs of great artistic talent, he took lessons from local portraitist Joseph Steward that continued until Steward moved away in 1796. Like many portraitists, Brewster began by painting full-scale portraits of his family and close family friends. Thanks to his advanced skill, this period of his career did not last long. Once he began taking professional commissions, he started to focus on half-scale portraits, most likely due to the high cost of commissioning him for a full portrait.
His career had great help from his family and friends. The life of a limner portraitist in the late 1700s and early 1800s was one of continuous travel. Those who were not established or well-known would travel from town to town, similar to a door-to-door salesman, knocking on doors of well-to-do homes in hope of acquiring work. With his parents settled in Connecticut and many family friends living throughout New England, Brewster was able to travel with few expenses. Furthermore, with five doctors in the family, the Brewsters were wealthy, enabling Brewster to connect with well-to-do patrons who were more likely to commission family portraits. Once established like other successful limner portraitists, Brewster was able to travel much less, stationing himself in larger cities and having clients come to him. Throughout his life he averaged six paintings per year, a much smaller number than his contemporaries who may have relied on their art to earn an income.
From 1817-1820, Brewster enrolled at the first school for the deaf in the United States, now known as the American School for the Deaf. There he not only learned to read, write, and communicate, but was also among the cohort of students and teachers who developed American Sign Language. During this time, he stopped taking commissions to focus on his education, but immediately began work again once he finished school. He painted until his death in 1854. Today more than two hundred paintings are attributed to him.
Brewster is known for the brilliancy of his subjects’ eyes, which seem to have their own life and stare into one’s soul. Historians surmise that his extraordinary talent at eyes, as well as faces, could be due to his deafness. As a non-hearing person, he had to be highly observant of people’s faces to navigate his world. Another specialty of Brewster’s was children’s portraits, which he painted more than his contemporaries. We have no record about why but, again, historians believe his deafness was the key. He had incredible patience, had to be visually interesting to communicate with clients, and could not hear the crying or screaming that might deter other artists.
To the contemporary eye, Brewster’s style might seem overly simplistic or sparse. His work, however, reflects the changing culture of post-Revolutionary America, which rejected the European style of ostentatious portraits in favor of those reflecting the Puritan and Calvinist values of purity and virtue. While one might lament the comparative loss of detail and accoutrements, the simplistic backgrounds of Brewster’s paintings allow the viewer to focus on what is most important in a portrait: the person.
Historic New England is fortunate to have three Brewster paintings in its collection.
More than forty of some of the best works of art from the Historic New England collection are currently on display on the Eustis Estate in Milton, Mass. Artful Stories: Painting from Historic New England is a look at the regional stories told through art – stories about the people who sat for portraits, the artists, the owners, and the places. See exquisite works of art made in or about New England spanning more than 200 years.
Alissa Butler manages the study center at Historic New England and oversees the internship program, which supports graduate students and emerging new professionals.