Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Young Girl holding an Apple, 1770s 

American School 

Oil on canvas
121.9 x 86.4cm (48 x 34ins)
 
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This portrait of a young girl in the garden of a country house – identified as such by the ball finial on the pier just visible through the trees behind – would appear stylistically to have been painted in the American colonies rather than in England. The young girl looks out at the viewer with an expression that suggests a child’s character very convincingly, and the slight stiffness with which she carries herself would seem an honest response to the circumstance of having one’s portrait painted so elaborately at such a young age. The somewhat naïve treatment of the face and its rather blank expression may reveal the influence of painters such as Jeremiah Theus (1716 – 1774), but in its impression of mild unease is not inappropriate to the subject. The highly naturalistic treatment of costume and accessories as an adjunct to the sitter looks forward to the middle class portraiture of Ralph Earl (1751 – 1801), who displays a similar gift in the apparently artless presentation of sitters in their environment. There are passages of highly accomplished painting in this portrait. The basket of apples – a symbol of future fecundity and prosperity, no doubt, rather than of The Fall – is an agreeable exercise in still-life painting, whilst the pink silk of the girl’s gold-fringed girdle provides a touch of extravagance which, with her beautiful red shoes and the distant finial, fix her status firmly in the upper reaches of the mercantile aristocracy. The apple that the girl displays so prominently to the viewer contributes to the overall tonal harmony, but it is not without possible symbolic interpretation. Again it may allude to childbearing, especially when displayed in such a position, but it may also playfully suggest the golden apple ‘for the fairest’ that Paris presented to the goddess Venus, which would be a flattering and hopeful inclusion in a female portrait. The flowers in the girl’s bonnet are a riot of colour to that provides an area of tonal excitement in the picture, whilst the drab feather not only adds a touch of childish plausibility but in its overtones of provincialism supports the identification as an American rather than a British portrait. Portraiture in America had evolved through the course of the eighteenth century to rely less and less on the slavish copy of models from Europe and especially Great Britain, and many painters were exploring directions in their art that might be considered specifically American. The greatest impetus in this process had lain in the generation of painters who succeeded the immigrant painter John Smibert, who left England for the colonies in 1728. When Smibert left England the country was still in thrall to the grand Baroque style of the late Sir Godfrey Kneller’s studio and followers, and although this manner was to become outmoded almost in the instant that Smibert left the country as its emissary to America it represented the very newest fashion to the colonists. Indigenous American portraiture had depended to a good deal upon the repetition of the motifs, and the deep, rich Baroque colouring, of such models, as well as on imported mezzotints for pose, but the innate character of the predominantly mercantile patrons also initiated a quest for greater and greater realism in portrayal. The rejection for various reasons of excessive show and the trappings of vanity ushered in a naturalism that is exemplified in its highest form by this date in the American portraits of John Singleton Copley, where often dazzling technical virtuosity is nonetheless subordinate to the honest suggestion of character in unpretentious sitters.
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