This installation focuses on some of the most outstanding paintings from Bowdoin College's collection of colonial and federal portraits, ranked by scholars among the finest in the United States. In 1805-1807, Gilbert Stuart painted president Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, then secretary of State, for James Bowdoin III. In 1813, the likenesses came as bequest to the College that Bowdoin had endowed in his father's name. As much as they are indebted to the European tradition, the portraits stand at the beginning of an American art that searched for cultural expressions fitting for an independent and democratic nation.
The magnificent presidential portraits are surrounded by images that span the first epoch of American portraiture. John Smibert, one of the earliest European artists to cross the Atlantic, settled in Boston in 1730, bringing well-established portrait conventions with him. There he painted James Bowdoin II as a child. Robert Feke, one of the first American-born painters to follow in Smibert's footsteps, painted James Bowdoin II and his bride a few years later, most likely to commemorate their wedding. John Singleton Copley, in works that preceded his departure for England in 1774, emancipated himself from Feke's influence by recording his observations in portraits that detail surface textures with unmatched accuracy.
The fluidity and flair of Gilbert Stuart's paintings, and their grand compositions brought the artist success in England and at home. Columns and red velvet curtains-familiar props in portraits of the European aristocracy since the Renaissance-now not only distinguished democratic rulers, they also dignified any sitter of the socio-economic East coast elite. After Stuart's death, English-born Thomas Sully filled the lead role among American portraitists, profiting from Stuart's early mentorship and his training in London. For him and others of his generation, status symbols became secondary to a romantic expression of a sitter's humanity and independent spirit.