“Now exhibiting” : Charles Bird King’s picture gallery, fashioning American taste and nation 1824-1861
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This dissertation is an exploration of Charles Bird King’s Gallery of Paintings. The Gallery opened in 1824 and, aside from a brief hiatus in the mid-1840s, was open to the public through the end of the antebellum era. King, who trained in London at the Royal Academy and under the supervision of Benjamin West, presented to his visitors a diverse display that encompassed portraits, genre scenes, still lifes, trompe l’oeils and history paintings. Though the majority of the paintings on display were his original works across these various genres, at least one third of the collection was made up of copies after the works of European masters as well as after the American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. This study is divided into four chapters. In the first, I explore late-colonial and early-republic public displays of the visual arts. My analysis demonstrates that King’s Gallery was in step with a tradition of viewing that stretched back to John Smibert’s Boston studio in the mid-eighteenth century and created a visual continuity into the mid-nineteenth century. In a second chapter, focused on portraiture, I examine what it meant to King and to his visitors to be “American.” The group of men and women King displayed in his Gallery was far more diverse than typical for the time period. King included many prominent politicians, but no American President after John Quincy Adams (whom King had painted before Adams’ election). Instead he featured portraits of many men of commerce as well as prominent women and numerous American Indians. In the third chapter, I look at a group of King’s original compositions, genre paintings. King’s style in this category was clearly indebted to seventeenth-century Dutch tradition as filtered through an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British lens, in particular the works of Sir David Wilkie. My final chapter continues the exploration of Dutch influences over King’s work. These paintings draw together the themes of King’s sense of humor, his attitudes towards patronage and his methods of circumventing inadequate patronage through the establishment of the Gallery. Finally, they prompt us to reconsider the importance of European precedents in our understanding of how artists and viewers worked together to establish an American visual cultural dialogue.