You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Limners, Portrait Painters

 A 1765 oil on canvas by Matthew Pratt (1734-1805).
Pratt sits at his easel, and his teacher and friend, Benjamin West,
stands at the far left holding paint brushes.
         By the early 1700s, wealthy American colonists hired painters, called “limners,” to paint portraits of their families. These limners, mostly self-taught, generally unknown by name, turned out naïve portraits in the Elizabethan style, the Dutch baroque style, or the English baroque court style, depending upon the European background of both artist and patron.
        Many limners painted miniatures -- tiny watercolor portraits -- on pieces of ivory, often oval-shaped. These were commonly worn as jewelry.
        Limners also painted on paper and canvas and earned, on average, $15 per portrait.
        Like most artisans of their time who found it difficult to support themselves with paintings only, they also worked in pewter, silver, glass, or textiles or took jobs doing ornamental painting of clocks, furniture, signs, coaches, and landscapes.
        Portraiture was the most important form of painting during the Colonial period, but rather than a true portrait, the paintings were idealistic and did not present a true representation of the personality of the sitter and were often two dimensional.
        Artists focused on the material wealth of the subject, giving much attention to their clothing and accessories. Some artists painted only the faces of their subjects, explaining that they need not bother with tedious sittings, and that they would paint the bodies and clothing later. They would show their subjects English and French prints from which to choose whatever costumes they preferred. Limners Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe became celebrated painters of furniture.
        Famous portrait artists included Joseph Blackburn, Peter Pelham, John Smibert, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull and Charles Wilson Peale. An American painter, Benjamin West, became painter to the king and president of the Royal Academy in London. American painters flocked to his studio to learn under his tutelage, including Gilbert Stuart.

Gilbert Stuart, a portrait by Sarah Goodridge
        Colonial limners kept supplies of pigments which they mixed to create watercolors, oil, and tempera paints. Watercolors consisted of pigment and chalk. Oil paints were a mixture of pigment and linseed oil. Tempera paints were a mixture of pigments, lime, and milk. Pigments were derived from white lead, zinc oxide, mercuric sulfide, iron oxide-containing clay and Paris green, a poisonous compound made of green copper and arsenic. Artists also used Prussian blue, a blue iron pigment.
        Limners sometimes made their own brushes, but could buy them from merchants as well. Brushes were made of quills from geese, ducks, and crows. Red sable-tipped brushes were often used for watercolor paintings, as were squirrel-hair quill brushes. They would have afforded limners working on a miniature the ability to create fine lines. Boar's bristles, widely used for a variety of tools, were likely used for paintbrushes, as they are today. Boar's bristle paintbrushes are most commonly used for oil paintings.
        Artists stored their pigments and paints in color boxes a sort of antique backpack--wooden boxes with hinges attaching the top to the bottom. The bottom half of the box served as a storage place for paint materials, and the lid served as a palette. A leather shoulder strap was attached for easy transport.
        In 1754 in British colonial New York, an artist took out the following ad in the Gazette and the Weekly Post: Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, just arrived from London with Capt. Miller, hereby acquaints all Gentlemen and Ladies inclined to favour him in having their pictures drawn, that he don't doubt of pleasing them in taking a true Likeness, and finishing the Drapery in a proper Manner, as also in the Choice of Attitudes, suitable to each Person's Age and Sex, and giving agreeable Satisfaction, as he has heretofore done to Gentlemen and Ladies in London. He may at present be apply'd to at his Lodgings, at Mr. Bogart's near the New Printing-Office in Beaver-Street.


  1. I'm confused. Why didn't they just use Instagram? :)

    That color box is awesome. I'd love to find an old one to use in our decor!

    1. Yep, the color box is awesome. I use a fishing tackle box for my paints -- firs two levels for paint tubes and bottom for brushes, pencils, etc. I've read stories about the Paris green that contained arsenic making people sick, especially if it was used in wallpaper. It's been used to explain why women used to faint to much.

  2. So that explains why portraits from that time seem to be so similar. Interesting!

    I love that box too. =]

    1. I guess it is similar to today's computer programs where you can put a person's face on another person's body.

  3. Boy, I wish I could paint. Had no idea that the artists would only paint half of the subject and then add a body later. Boar bristles also make fabulous hairbrushes for smoothness and shine.

    1. J'nell, I paint as a hobby and truly enjoy it. I've taken classes over the years and find the people in those classes to be among the nicest and most interesting ones to talk to. I admire portrait artists most of all.

  4. I grump that pictures today don't give a realistic view of people because so much can be done to alter the picture digitally - but of course it could be done with paintings too! Interesting facts!

  5. You always have so many fascinating things to teach us. Thank you!

  6. Very interesting! I also find it interesting that there are no known female painters in that era. Seems that way in the world of classical music, too. Guess women were still treated as property in those days.