A taste of painting is too much Wanting ... was it not for preserving the resemble[n]ce of perticular persons, painting would not be known in the plac[e]. The people generally regard it no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor, or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World.
Thus John Singleton Copley, writing about 1767 to an unknown correspondent,(1) lamented the lack of regard for painting among his fellow Bostonians, who limited their patronage to the relatively utilitarian art of portraiture; at the same time, he rued their failure to recognize the nobility of art and artist. Copley's disgust was a gauge of the ambition that helped to make him colonial America's premier painter, but that also led him, on the eve of revolution, to abandon his country for the artistically more supportive climate of London.
Copley's complaint had foundation: colonial Americans, for the most part, did regard painters, who worked with their hands, as artisans. So did many Englishmen, judging from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which defined artisan as: (1) "artist; professor of art," and (2) "manufacturer; low tradesman."(2) Undated verse from the Guardian supporting the first definition identified the artisan-artist with portrait painting: "Best and happiest artisan/Best of painters, if you can,/With your many colour'd art,/Draw the mistress of my heart." Even theorists who championed painting as a liberal art had difficulty making the claim for portraiture, a genre debased, in academic terms, by its representation of unimproved, rather than ideal, nature. Artisan, mechanic, craftsman - terms roughly synonymous during the eighteenth century - all connoted manufacture of a "low," as opposed to "liberal" sort; such, the young Copley might have learned from art treatises, was the portraitist's art.(3)
In choosing the comparison with carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers - members of the lower artisanry, having meager wages, uncertain prospects for advancement, and little possibility of acquiring property - Copley willfully magnified the insult to his occupation. Artists, along with metalworkers (like silversmiths and watchmakers), had considerably greater expectations; Copley's were realized in 1769 with his marriage to the daughter of a prosperous merchant and his acquisition of substantial property on Beacon Hill. But Copley did not want to be identified with any artisan, a distancing that becomes evident in comparing his self-portrait of 1769 and his roughly contemporary portrait of silversmith Paul Revere. The portrait of Revere, I will argue, encodes the tensions that plagued those colonial painters who, like Copley, were eager to disassociate themselves from the artisan ranks and to redefine their activity as a liberal art. What did it mean to Copley to be ranked an artisan, and why, beyond hyperbole, might he have singled out the artisans that he did?
Copley identified himself as the practitioner not of a "useful trade" but of a "noble" art; in his mind, undoubtedly, this made him a gentleman - a designation that, prior to the sixteenth century, had been reserved for those of noble birth.(4) By the eighteenth century, and especially in colonial British America, where few were titled, the term had wider application. Birth and parentage still counted for a great deal; so did wealth, though it alone did not the gentleman make, especially if gained in trade. Gentlemen were never defined by what they did, by the usefulness of their trades, but by their "quality" and condition as men of learning, manners, taste, and character.
The vast majority, by contrast, ranked as the common people.(5) No matter how respectable or how wealthy, if they worked for a living - especially if they worked with their hands - they could claim no more than "middling" status. Nor did most of them aspire to a higher station; the prevailing desire among artisans, Gary Nash has argued, was "not to reach the top but to get off the bottom."(6) Some artisans were nearer the bottom than others, engaged in crafts with limited earning power and, for a variety of reasons, lesser prestige. Tailoring, for example, was thought suitable for the weakly because its physical demands were few; it also required so little in terms of raw materials - needle, thread, tape measure (customers usually supplied their own cloth) - that virtually anyone could take up the trade. The shoemaker's trade (also called cordwainery in the eighteenth century) was likewise a lowly pursuit, its scant financial rewards undercut throughout the colonies by the large number of practitioners. Seventeenth-century Boston had so many that shoemakers attempted to control access to the trade through establishment of a guild, a system that otherwise never took hold in the colonies.(7) Carpentry required considerably more skill and commanded higher wages, but it was a more dangerous and decidedly seasonal pursuit, factors that offset its relatively greater prestige. The construction industry in Boston, furthermore, was stagnant during the 1760s and 1770s, a period of economic decline for that city generally.(8)
Carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers - these were the artisans with whom Copley deplored connection, and he was not alone in expressing contempt for them. William Henry Drayton of South Carolina found it inconceivable that gentlemen such as himself should have to accept the participation in government of "men who never were in a way to study" (that is, acquire a liberal education) and who knew little more than how "to cobble an old shoe in the neatest manner, or to build a necessary house."(9) Likewise, the royal governor of Georgia decried the absence of "Gentlemen or Men of Property" among provincial leaders and found the composition of the revolutionary committee in control of Savannah "a Parcel of the Lowest People, Chiefly Carpenters, Shoemakers, Blacksmiths etc."(10) What concerned these patricians was fitness for political leadership, which the republican tradition - an important eighteenth-century ideal, particularly in the Atlantic world - denied working men.(11) (Women, though completely disenfranchised, were equally inclined to scapegoat the lower sort, as did a Philadelphian who, in condemning the "rascally clergy" in Maryland, charged that "taylors, cobblers, blacksmiths and such fellows" take orders "when they cannot live like gentlemen by their trade.")(12) Shoemakers had long been associated with agitation among the downtrodden, and a basis in fact was close at hand: Boston cordwainer Ebenezer MacIntosh led the mobs that dismantled the houses of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson in demonstrations of August 1765 against the Stamp Act.(13) Blacksmiths and tailors date as figures for the politically engaged lower orders at least to Shakespeare's "smith ... with open mouth swallowing a tailor's news" - a tailor who, in his haste to spread political rumors, could not even get his slippers on the right feet.(14) English painter Edward Penny took up that scene for his comic A Blacksmith Hearkening to a Tailor's News, shown at the first Royal Academy exhibition in 1769; engraved in 1771 with the title The English Politicians, the work commented derisively on political engagement by the lower sort at the time of the Wilkes affair.(15)
In classical republican discourse, working men like tailors and shoemakers could never act virtuously and in the public interest because they were necessarily concerned with promoting the interests of their occupation and with the concrete - the materials of a trade - rather than the abstract.(16) Only those who did not have to earn a living (traditionally associated with ownership of land, worked by others) were thought capable of maintaining integrity in public office. Classed as gentlemen, these men were considered independent and "disinterested," and therefore fit to govern. In the absence of a hereditary aristocracy, the old notions were breaking down in America, and yet the old prejudices lingered. John Adams, writing in 1760, sarcastically called shoemaking "too mean and dimi[nu]tive an Occupation" to satisfy a legal client of his. The shoemaker, who should have "diligently followed his Trade," wanted instead to "rise in the World" and took to "meddling with Law," to his financial ruin. For one who was himself the son of a shoemaker and farmer, Adams's condescension is striking. He, however, had acquired what the shoemaker had not: "the Advantage of a liberal Education," for Adams a prerequisite to leadership and to membership in a "natural" aristocracy.(17)
In the literature of art, the shoemaker had long exemplified the man mired in particulars and incapable of judging the whole. Pliny first told the tale of a shoemaker who criticized Apelles' representation of a sandal. Acknowledging the shoemaker's expertise in the matter of footwear, Apelles made the correction; however, he refused to do so when the man returned to criticize his rendering of the leg, that being outside the shoemaker's expertise.(18) For Plato, painters were men of similarly narrow experience. He chose the shoemaker and carpenter as subjects the painter might render with sufficient skill so as to deceive the foolish, but he emphasized that the painter did so without understanding, merely representing appearances.(19) Eighteenth-century writers on art were at pains to refute the view that painters lacked higher faculties of mind and repeatedly retold Pliny's story, emphasizing the artist's superiority to "ignorant, uneducated" would-be critics.(20) Some painters, they conceded, were too closely bound to the particular; portraitists, especially, faced this problem. But others transcended that limitation by figuring the ideal - the substance rather than the accidental and irrational appearance of things - and by illustrating noble actions. According to...