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New York Painting Begins: Eighteenth-Century Portraits

September 15, 2009 - March 25, 2010

The New-York Historical Society holds one of the nation’s premiere collections of 18th-century American portraits. During this formative century a small group of native-born painters and European émigrés created images that represent a broad swath of elite colonial New York society— landowners and tradesmen, and later Revolutionaries and Loyalists—while reflecting the area’s Dutch roots and its strong ties with England.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) The Peale Family, 1773-1809 Oil on canvas New-York Historical Society, 1867.298

In the past these paintings were valued for their insights into the lives of the sitters, and they include distinguished New Yorkers who played leading roles in its history. However, the focus in this exhibition is placed on the paintings themselves and their own histories as domestic objects, often passed through generations of family members. These works raise many questions, and given the sparse documentation from the period, not all of them can be definitively answered: why were these paintings made, and who were the artists who made them? How did they learn their craft? How were the paintings displayed? How has their appearance changed over time, and why? And how did they make their way to the New-York Historical Society?

The state of knowledge about these paintings has evolved over time, and continues to do so as new discoveries are made. This exhibition does not provide final answers, but presents what is currently known, and invites the viewer to share the sense of mystery and discovery that accompanies the study of these fascinating works.

Creative: Tronvig Group