- Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America
Over the past two decades, Margaretta Lovell has been among the most productive and provocative scholars of eighteenth-century American material culture. Art in a Season of Revolution usefully brings together essays Lovell published between 1987 and 2000, augmented with two chapters of new research, to offer a complex, if idiosyncratic, picture of late-colonial artistic production and consumption. Whereas the existing art historical literature has tended to focus on individuals, Lovell distinguishes her approach as oriented toward objects. Avoiding what she regards as an anachronistic validation of individual genius, she develops a "synchronic analysis moving outward from...case-study objects" to the culture that shaped them and which they, in turn, helped to shape (3). The meticulous excavation of the "material-culture method," she claims, "differs from that common in art history in that it reads objects to unfold our knowledge about culture rather than reading culture to better our appreciation of singular artworks" (4). Art historians may dispute Lovell's characterization of what they do, and many will find theoretically naïve her belief that she can avoid adding "one more sedimentary layer to the tales" others have told about works she examines (267). But few will deny that Lovell brings extraordinary focus to the objects featured in this book and to the social networks in which they were embedded.
Lovell's first chapter sets portraits (and, to a lesser extent, prints) within the context of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. Recent scholarship has cited American materialism as a major factor in the popularity of portraits, the type [End Page 564] of painting overwhelmingly favored in colonial America (though hardly the only genre, an impression left by this book). From the viewpoint of consumption, the fine imported goods that appear on and around sitters in portraits readily attest to colonial participation in the Atlantic marketplace. But Lovell rejects the idea that keeping up with the Joneses spurred commissions. And she wonders why Americans, if as pragmatic and materialistic as often asserted, commissioned works without exchange value. Here, Lovell introduces the importance of family as a central theme of her book—much more prominent than consumption or the "season of revolution" that the title promises. A reader expecting to learn about the place of artisanal products in that tumultuous political context will be somewhat disappointed (and may wish to consult T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution, 2004). Lovell ultimately concedes that the Revolution "occurs offstage" relative to most of the objects she examines (270), though the term "revolution" in its broader sense is to some degree justified by social changes she charts, especially those having to do with family structure. The family was the basic unit of production and consumption in colonial America, and portraits played a role in the colonial economy insofar as they documented "the family line in operation" (10). Families with inheritable substance had a greater need for portraits than those who did not, Lovell suggests, arguing that this circumstance played a more important role in determining who commissioned portraits than whether a family might have afforded a work of that type at any given moment. Somewhat paradoxically, then, probate inventories rarely assigned value to family portraits; such pictures, if "centrally about money" (i.e., "the orderly transfer of wealth and power to rightful heirs"), had only private significance for those depicted, functioning "as a kind of magic replication instrumental in negotiating family identity" (45, 49). Lovell's wordiness obscures her simple point: portraits indicated lines of inheritance.
Chapter Two expands that idea, focusing on a small group of paintings that Lovell terms "elaborated self-portraits," made by two Americans who studied in London, Matthew Pratt and Charles Willson Peale, and their mentor, Benjamin West, Britain's preeminent history painter. These works contain internal portraits and highlight the act of painting—a well-established trope in Western art that Lovell does not explore. Instead, she finds the pictures distinctly American for...