For a long time, I felt quite sure that the jacket for my book The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era should feature The American School (1765), a painting made in London by Matthew Pratt and exhibited there in 1766. My book is not about Pratt’s picture, though I consider it at length, nor is Pratt a major early American artist, though this work has canonical status, albeit one based in misunderstanding. In any case, I could only have used the book title and painting of that name were I open to the association, and I was. Pratt’s picture, in my view, raises for its particular moment the broader question at the heart of my book: “what did it mean to be an American artist in the 18th– and early 19th-century transatlantic world?” During the period I examine, roughly 1750 to 1830, there was no recognized “American school” or even a consensus on what it meant to be “American.” (That’s a debate we’re still having and probably always will.)
Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Samuel P. Avery, 1897
My awareness that this was an important but unasked question first arose from an encounter with Pratt’s painting decades ago, at a time when I had relatively little experience with early American art. I knew only that the setting was ostensibly the London studio of Benjamin West, Pratt’s slightly younger Pennsylvania contemporary. West was recently settled in London after three years abroad in Italy, and he soon helped to found the Royal Academy of Arts and acquired the novel title of “Historical Painter to the King.” He became so successful in England that he never returned to his colonial homeland, which went to war with the mother country over a decade after he left. Almost any way you slice it, West was British. How and why he ultimately became an “American” artist and, by 1834, the acknowledged founding father of American painting is the subject of the final chapter in my book.
West’s distinction explains why The American School, the painting, had rarely been read in terms of the “nobody” who painted it (even most Americanists can’t summon another work by Pratt) and why the picture was always considered to be about West, the master who over the course of sixty years in England mentored scores of American artists. Scholars agree that West stands at left, offering a critique, and most once concluded that Pratt is the recipient of his attention, sort of a “greatness by proximity” argument. But who are the other persons represented? No one had been able to identify the other young men—try as they might—because, in 1765, West had been in London less than two years and had yet no American pupils or associates besides Pratt.
I began, back then, to wonder if we weren’t missing the point in so stubbornly clinging to the idea that Pratt’s painting must be documentary. Could it not be imagined?—a wishful statement about the ideal formation of the artist, which simultaneously invented a past few Anglo-American painters could claim and projected an auspicious future at a time when artistic associations and exhibitions were a new thing, even in London. By the internal logic of the painting, then, Pratt would have to be the man seated at the depicted easel, an independent painter like West and his equal, at least in Pratt’s imagination. Eventually, for my first article on an 18th-century topic, I had a lot more to say about Pratt’s American School, not least about the possible significance of that original title, given that (as I learned) colonial Americans did not then commonly identify themselves as “Americans.” And once I decided that the painting was an allegory, it no longer mattered to identify the participants; in fact, it explained why it had been impossible to do so.
Pratt’s painting not only made a more complex statement than I at first imagined; it was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. My book, a labor of decades, is the fruit of my investigations. Upon submitting the completed manuscript to my editor, Gillian Malpass, I proposed The American School, as a work of profound personal and central thematic relevance, for the jacket. I envisioned a detail that featured the right half of the painting, with Pratt at his easel, restoring him as the hero of his own picture. But when, some months later, I was presented with the jacket design, West and that imaginary bunch of students monopolized the cover! The designer, Emily Lees, thought the left side of the painting was more interesting than the part with Pratt. I couldn’t disagree but, oh, the irony of it. Still, what was done was done, or so it seemed.
Not long after, however, I stumbled across the cover image for a book I knew well but did not own: a 2003 collection of essays by the eminent Yale University art historian Jules Prown. Once upon a time, if you didn’t own a book, you weren’t likely to see its jacket; the internet has changed all that. My first cover image was identical to Prown’s. I delighted in this opportunity to return to my original idea, but not for long. When Gillian sent me the redesigned cover, I could see why Emily hadn’t wanted to use the right side of the picture. It was definitely more static, but the real problem was that disembodied leg poking in from the left, among a superabundance of awkward legs.
In a book with 170 plates, including 90 in color, there ought to have been numerous other candidates. But no one work seemed to speak so comprehensively to the issues at stake in the book. Gillian and Emily urged me to make a selection based solely on visual impact and, in due course, I suggested using some portion of a 19th-century hatmaker’s sign. (Incidentally, the work is rare in having attribution to an admired artist, Edward Hicks, now known for his Peaceable Kingdoms but a decorative painter by trade.) Although I say little about this example, sign painting is critical to my study along with other types of utilitarian work that belong to the trade of painting, from which would-be fine artists were running as fast as they could.
Edward Hicks, Jacob Christ: Hatter, shop sign, ca. 1810-40. Oil on panel. From the Collection of the Mercer Museum of the Bucks County Historical Society, gift of Henry Chapman Mercer, 1918
Gillian and Emily were delighted, and Emily worked her magic as a designer, cropping the sign for maximum visual effect while creatively retaining the black border that bore the name of the business but replacing “Jacob Christ, Hatter” with my name and book title, in a ragged font with an appropriate rusticity. Brilliant!
In a slow burn over the next few days, I came to see that the sign was not only visually much stronger than Pratt’s painting but more ingeniously revealing of content. Painting as a trade constitutes the near and pervasive background against which American and British fine artists sought to distinguish themselves, with sign painting—a topic in nearly every chapter—the most perilously proximate branch of the trade.
For a book that charts the bumpy process by which painting became a fine art and a profession in the early United States, I absolutely delight in the irony of finding the strongest image for the cover in a humble signboard (with its relatively gentlemanly top hat). And so, if they could weigh in, might American cultural nationalists of the antebellum period. Writing home from Europe, the veteran engraver and future leading painter Asher Durand confessed a degree of sensory overload by no means uncommon among American travelers abroad. “I can look with admiration and wonder on the beauty and sublimity of the scenes now before me. I can look with gratification and advantage on the great works of art . . . yet when all this looking and studying and admiring shall have an end, I am free to confess that I shall enjoy a sight of the signboards in the streets of New York more than all the pictures in Europe.” The comment is especially striking because pictorial signboards had by then almost entirely disappeared, in favor of the lettered signs that cluttered New York City building facades. Yet in juxtaposition to the “pictures of Europe,” Durand must have had in mind the type of the homely pictorial signboard. In such apparently simple, direct, and artisan-made images, Durand glimpsed American artistic beginnings as he chose to imagine them, implicitly non-hierarchical and democratic.
That was a new ideal of American art and artists, of modern artists one might say, an ideal gradually taking shape in the early United States. The path to such postures of national pride and acceptance, with all the stuttering steps in between, is the story my book tells.
Susan Rather is a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin.