John Brewster, Jr.

I came across a YouTube video from WGBH (Boston).  Harlan Lane spoke about the Deaf artist, John Brewster, Jr.

(Please do not rely on the automatic YouTube captions.  They are terrible.  Here is a revised transcription –

Harlan Lane’s book and lecture talks about the four worlds of the artist.  The first world is the Puritan world.  He was a 7th generation descendant of Elder William Brewster who came over to the New World on the Mayflower.  The second world was the Federalist world which Lane says included the merchant class and professionals and were the ones who sat for Brewster’s portraits.  The third world was the Deaf world which I will talk  abut later.  The fourth world is his artistic world.

Here are some descriptions of Brewster’s painting style.

“John Brewster Jr. (1766–1854) was a deaf portrait painter who created beautiful and ethereal images of American people during the formative period of the nation. This is the first major exhibition in more than forty years to highlight Brewster’s extraordinary life and work. Born in Hampton, Connecticut, Brewster helped create a style of American portraiture that came to dominate rural New England. Brewster was influenced by the paintings of Connecticut artist Ralph Earl but simplified the settings and introduced broad flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features. He was especially sensitive to the sitter’s face, emphasizing his or her direct gaze—as a deaf artist, eye contact became a moment of engagement and communication…These experiences combined to define who Brewster was not only as an artist who was incidentally deaf, but also and just as importantly as a deaf artist.”

“His portraits reveal a great deal of sensitivity towards the subject, likely a result of his extraordinary ability to concentrate. He was credited with ‘exceptionally fine brushwork’ and facial expressions ‘almost photographic in intensity . . .one feels that the total absence of audible communication between him and the people around him rendered him uniquely sensitive to the distinctive personality of each sitter.'” (Little 21 – 300 Years of American Art Nina Fletcher Little, Essay in American Folk Painters of Three Centuries).

Ironically, the seed of Brewster’s talent was not in overcoming his deafness, but rather in tapping into it. In a world uncluttered by sound, Brewster could see and then depict his subjects in a way that hearing artists couldn’t. In a Brewster portrait, the sitter gazes directly at the viewer, and the eyes nearly pop from the canvas–not surprising, since most of Brewster’s communication relied on direct eye contact and his ability to read minute facial expressions.

Mother with Son (Lucy Knapp Mygatt (1766-1804) and George Mygatt (1797-1888)) – 1799

Copyright Palmer Museum of Art, Curtain Road, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802. All rights reserved. Gift of Mrs. Nancy Adams McCord. The image is intended for educational use only and is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes. Our thanks to The Palmer.

Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt
John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854) Danbury, Connecticut 1799
The iconic double portrait of Comfort Starr Mygatt and daughter Lucy painted by John Brewster, Jr. in 1799 has been given to the Yale University Art Gallery by the Katcher family. Beginning on February 20, 2009, it will be on exhibition on the third floor of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.
Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt
John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854)
Danbury, Connecticut 1799

Girl in Green (Nancy Prince) c. 1800
From the Collection of Karen Halttunen
Courtesy of The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187-1776. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. 1939.100.6. All rights reserved. Our thanks to the Museum.

One Shoe Off1807
“Working in a style that emphasized simpler settings, along with broad, flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features, Brewster achieved a directness and intensity of vision rarely equaled.”

Double Portrait of Wealthy Jones Winter (b. 1819) and Sarah Marie Winter (b.1817)
Bath, Maine, circa 1827

Double Portrait of Marcia Bowman Winter (b. 1824) and William Drew Winter (b. 1822)
Bath, Maine, circa 1827

Francis O. Watts with bird. John Brewster Jr. (1766–1854) Kennebunk, Maine 1805
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0265.1961

This is the painting on the cover of Harlan Lane’s book.
Francis O. Watts with Bird – 1805
Fenimore Art Museum N0265.1961.

Compare the eyes in Brewster’s paintings with the eyes in one of the most famous painting by his teacher, Rev. Joseph Steward, a portrait of Eleazar Wheelock.

Eleazar Wheelock by Joseph Steward, 1793-1796 (Hood Museum of Art),_1793-1796,_oil_on_canvas_-_Hood_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC09192.JPG

John Brewster, Jr. inhabited  four worlds but they were small worlds.  Rev. James Cogswell had introduced Brewster to his art mentor, Rev. Steward.  Rev. Cogswell was the father of Mason Fitch Cogswell and the grandfather of Alice Cogswell, who became Deaf at age 2.  Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a neighbour of the Cogswell family and took an interest in Alice’s education.  That eventually led to the founding of the first Deaf school in the USA in Hartford Connecticut.  There were seven pupils in the first class.  Alice was the youngest at age 12.  The oldest was John Brewster, Jr. at age 51.

3 thoughts on “A Deaf Artist

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