As I mentioned in the post A Deaf Artist the automatic captioning of the Harlan Lane video on WGBH has some errors.  I made an attempt to correct those errors and have posted the revised transcript here.

Deaf Artist: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.
Harlan Lane

WGBH Forum at

0:00    Introducer (Michelle?): I’m very happy today to introduce our speaker to you, Harlan Lane.
0:04    Harlan is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of
0:09    Psychology at Northeastern University.
0:11    He’s received the International Social Merit Award
0:15    of the World Federation of the Deaf, among numerous other honors.
0:19    An internationally recognized advocate for the Deaf
0:22    the author and editor of nine books on Deaf history,
0:26    language and culture. Mr lane lives right here in Boston.
0:30    And he’s going to be speaking with us today about
0:33    the artist John Webster.  So, please help me welcome
0:37    Harlan Lane. Thank you.
0:45    Harlan Lane: Yes, the occasion of my being here today is that I have
0:48    just brought out a new book which is called A Deaf Artist in Early America:
0:53    The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.
0:56    And I understand from Michelle there are books here and I’d be happy to sign
0:59    books if anyone would like that.  Now Brewster, I call it The Worlds of John
1:05    Brewster, Jr. because Brewster belonged to at least four worlds.
1:08    He was first of all from a Puritan family.
1:11    He was a seventh generation descendant of elder William Brewster
1:16    who of course brought the Mayflowers, the
1:19    Puritans over on the Mayflower.
1:23    He was also a member of the federalist elite, the
1:26    post-revolutionary merchant class that
1:30    also included clergy and professional people.
1:34    And they were those whose portraits he painted. They were his sitters, as they
1:39    say.
1:39    Thirdly, Brewster was a Deaf man so he belonged to the Deaf world and
1:44    at a very interesting and exciting time. The Deaf world was just coming together,
1:49    creating structures, developing a language of wider communication.
1:55    And finally he was, of course, above all, an artist.
2:01    An artist who gave us images of early America,
2:04     images of, I hope you’ll agree,
2:08    haunting beauty. Brewster was a limner,
2:14    an itinerant
2:17    portrait artist, who did not honor many of the prescriptions
2:21    of art in Europe, where contemporaries did study, for example,
2:26    John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stewart. (American contemporaries of Brewster)
2:30    and so they adopted the Grand Manor style that
2:35    originated in France, in the (École des) Beaux-Arts,
2:38    and in England. And that was a very different style from the one that
2:44    indigenous American portraitists used.  Working in that peculiarly American
2:50    idiom
2:50    whose roots were in England, in fact, Brewster achieved a directness
2:55    and intensity of vision that has rarely been equal(ed).
2:59    Art historians have called his portrait of Sarah Prince, for example,
3:04    which is projected on the screen, quote,
3:08    “One of the masterpieces American painting.”
3:12    and, quote, “A landmark in American painting.”
3:15    It’s one of his most moving. The painting is also known as the Silver Moon
3:22    after the sheet music on the piano. Sarah Prince here is
3:27    Lovely. I hope you agree. She’s also very rich.
3:31    Very few families could afford a piano
3:34    in her time. The palate that Brewster has chosen is warm.
3:39    The girl is poised, still but the musical notes suggest gaiety.
3:45    It’s interesting to observe the Brewster painted two bars of the song
3:50    and then stopped. I wonder what it must have been like for a man who was born
3:55    deaf
3:55    to paint the portrait of a woman
4:00    and include sheet music and a piano in his
4:03    painting. Brewster’s portraits,
4:07    some valued at more than a million dollars, are to be found in
4:11    numerous American museums. So, don’t think that after this talk you’re going to slip out
4:16    and buy a Brewster quickly.
4:18    They’re to be found but they’re terribly expensive
4:22    The Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston, for example, has four
4:27    Brewster (painting)s. So the next time you’re at the MFA you might want to go to that room
4:31    in the American collection and
4:33    look at the real thing which is, of course, so much more powerful
4:36    than a projected projection on a screen.
4:40    Now, Brewster was not an artist who incidentally was Deaf.
4:45    Rather he was, I will argue, a Deaf artist,
4:48    one in a long tradition that owes many of its features
4:52    and achievements to the fact that Deaf people
4:55    are visual people.
5:08    This is a portrait by John Brewster Jr.,
5:11    when he was 33.
5:15    The subjects are Comfort Starr Mygatt, a wealthy merchant of
5:19    Danbury Connecticut and his daughter, Lucy.
5:22    What strikes me most about this painting are the eyes.
5:27    They’re superbly drawn. They
5:31    return the viewer’s gaze with the silent
5:35    penetrating look much as I imagine Brewster himself did.
5:40    And together with the other facial features
5:43    they project great clarity and directness
5:46    on the personalities of the sitters. The austere background,
5:52    the muted colors and the careful composition
5:57    are a backdrop for the complex humanity
6:00    of the subjects and seem to place them,
6:03    almost in relief.  Surely,
6:07    this direct vision of the artist and Brewster’s
6:11    focus on vision must be related to his deafness from birth.
6:15    Many of our contemporary Deaf leaders
6:19    have affirmed that Deaf people are, foremost, visual people.
6:22    And there is indeed, and it’s quite interesting, a growing body of
6:27    psychological research
6:28    to confirm that people who grow up Deaf have greater capacities
6:33    in visual perception than do hearing people.
6:46    Brewster painted Comfort Starr’s wife also Lucy Knapp
6:50    and son, George, at about the same time.
6:53    Here again we find the uncompromising clarity of the artist’s vision.
6:58    He talks honestly, using a brush,
7:01    to tell you what he saw. In Deaf culture, straight talk
7:06    is highly valued.  These are Deaf paintings
7:09    because of their visual impact and directness.
7:13    The painting documents the Mygatts most prized possession,
7:17    their land and home. I should also say their children.
7:21    All of these were a mark of
7:25    accomplishment in the Puritan world.
7:28    And you can see their positions, their possessions, some of them through the
7:33    window,
7:33    in an optical feat. This was
7:38    part of their achievement that they wanted recorded. The prosperity that
7:44    followed the American Revolution created a new kind of hero
7:48    and a new subject for immortalizing through painting,
7:51    the prosperous Yankee, landholder,
7:55    merchant, captain. Then too,
7:58    with death from the illness a commonplace, portraiture served to
8:03    reassure the living
8:04    and memorialize the recently deceased. Our contemporary eyes may blink
8:10    at the portrayal of the children as small adults
8:13    but that, apparently, didn’t offend clients at the time.
8:17    Perhaps the differing images of childhood then
8:22    and now are partly the result of the differing roles
8:25    of children then and now. To say it in one sense, children in those days
8:31    very early became part of the hard-working
8:34    family that grew
8:38    (uh)
8:39    crops and tended animals and
8:42    fought with the hard New England winters.  So they took on very early the role
8:47    of adults and, in my book, I make the case that
8:49    in some sense childhood didn’t exist in their time.
8:54    The stiffness of the poses and the simplified drawing of the arms and hands
9:01    are commonplace in this period and they derive, I think, from the
9:05    flat decorative manner, characteristic of Elizabethan
9:09    painting. Now John Brewster, Jr. began his career only a few years before painting
9:16    the Mygatts.
9:17    He was born in Hampton, Connecticut in 1766
9:22    and when he was 25 he took lessons in portraiture
9:25    from a self trained artist and minister in the nearby town of Scotland,
9:30    Connecticut, Reverend Joseph Steward.  Around the time that Brewster painted
9:36    the Mygatts, his teacher, Steward,
9:38    painted their distinguished pastor in Scotland parish,
9:42    Reverend James Cogswell.  Here’s a
9:46    painting of Cogswell by Steward.
9:56    You will have noticed, perhaps, some other similarities between the pupil’s work and
9:59    his teacher’s,
10:00    such as the landscape view through the open window.
10:03    Rev. Cogswell kept an extensive diary.
10:08    An entry in 1790 provides one of the few scraps
10:12    of direct information about John Brewster, Jr.
10:16    Cogswell wrote, “Dr. Brewster’s son,
10:20    a deaf and dumb young man, came in the evening and he’s very ingenious.
10:24    He has a genius for painting and can write well
10:28    and converse by signs so that he may be understood in many things.
10:33    He lodged here.” And then
10:36    in February of 1791 the diary tells us more,
10:40    “Brewster, the deaf young man, was at my house when I came home.
10:44    He tarried and dined here. He appears to have a good disposition
10:50    and an ingenious mind. I could converse but little with him
10:55    being not acquainted with the signs. I pity him
11:00    and thank God for the exercise of my senses.
11:03    Now it seems likely that it was Rev. Cogswell who introduced Rev. Steward
11:10    to the ingenious Deaf young artist, John Brewster, Jr.
11:14    Brewster was no doubt looking for a career
11:17    in a new nation that had made no provision whatever
11:21    for its Deaf citizens. There was no way,
11:25    except private tutors, to educate a deaf child.
11:28    In 1796
11:31    Steward and his family moved to Hartford where he opened a museum in the
11:35    Connecticut State House.
11:36    In the following year his only son became gravely ill
11:41    and Rev. Cogswell’s son, Mason Fitch Cogswell,
11:46    a doctor, a widely admired physician,
11:49    treated him until, alas, he died.
11:52    Steward continued to direct the Hartford museum and paint local dignitaries
11:58    until he died at age 68.  Now the Steward style of painting, which he taught to
12:05    John John Brewster, Jr.
12:07    was highly derivative of another and greater contemporary Hartford
12:11    portraitist,
12:12    Ralph Earl.  Steward, not only studied Earl’s portraits,
12:17    and painted in the manner of Earl but he also copied several Earls.
12:22    Since Brewster’s master was Steward
12:25    and Steward copied Earl, let’s look at a Hartford portrait by Earl,
12:31    a likeness of Rev. Cogswell’s son, Mason Fitch Cogswell.
12:45    We find here the precursors on the palate,
12:49    pose and compositional elements adopted by Steward.  Earl was clearly fond of his
12:55    subject who
12:56    has a sweet smile and a dog at his side.
12:59    The painting combines the elements of the grand manner which Earl had
13:04    studied in
13:05    Benjamin West’s studio, along with Gilbert Stuart and John Copley,
13:09    so it has some the elements of the high
13:12    or grand manner art.
13:16    But it also has features of American provincial art, such as the candid
13:21    likeness and the regional details of furnishing.
13:24    Earl had found the artist’s dream benefactor in Mason Cogswell.
13:30    Mason was the son of a prominent minister.
13:33    He was a nephew of governor Huntington. He was an intimate of those famous
13:39    or rich or both. Moreover he officiated
13:43    at three of the moments in life
13:46    when the need for portrait was felt most sharply – birth,
13:51    illness and death. Most to Earl’s Connecticut patrons for the next decades
13:57    were Cogswell’s patients or acquaintances. It was just at this time as Earl
14:02    established himself in Hartford
14:04    under Mason Cogwell’s patronage that Stewart began giving lessons
14:09    in art to John Brewster, Jr. and the Reverend Cogswell
14:12    praised Brewster in his diary.
14:16    In 1800
14:21    John Brewster, Jr. painted a picture of his father and mother,
14:24    his stepmother, Ruth Avery.
14:37    Note the convention of the drapery and landscape, the characteristic pose
14:42    and the delicate handling of facial expression. There are also several
14:47    conventional symbols of wealth
14:49    the shiny metal buckles on his father’s shoes,
14:52    the lawn, the leather-bound volume. Brewster was 25.
14:57    He’d grown up in a cultured eighteenth century home
15:00    with seven brothers and sisters. In 1795, John Brewster, Jr.’s
15:06    older brother Royal, a physician like his father,
15:11    moved to Buxton, Maine, little more than a wilderness encampment at the time.
15:16    There Royal married the pastor’s daughter
15:19    and had a house built across the road from the church.
15:23    John Brewster, Jr. soon moved in with his brother and sister-in-law
15:28    and spent parts of 1796 and 1797
15:32    painting in nearby Portland. An advertisement
15:37    in the Scotland Connecticut Phoenix for September 28th
15:40    1797 states, quote, “John Brewster, Jr. portrait and miniature painter
15:47    informs that he is at Scotland parish ready to serve those in his art
15:52    who may furnish him with business. NB,
15:56    for seventeen months past he has been improving his art at Portland.”
16:00    In 1798
16:05    Brewster advertises availability in the Norwich, Connecticut Courier
16:09    The same year finds him in Danbury, Connecticut
16:12    running up a bill in a dry goods store for painter’s supplies.
16:16    And Comfort Starr Mygatt owned the store.
16:20    So, no doubt, that was a(n) exchange in which
16:23    Brewster did the portraits in return got materials and, perhaps,
16:27    contacts for for the portraits. In 1799 Brewster’s advertisements appear in the
16:34    Poughkeepsie Journal.
16:35    At the turn of the century stayed for an extended period in the home of a wealthy
16:40    Saco, Maine
16:42    landholder, Colonel Thomas Cutts, and painted many of the members of the
16:47    family.
16:47    Here’s the colonel and his wife
17:01    I’ve said that the 19th century recast the hero
17:04    as the bourgeois head of household. The Colonel comes through in this likeness
17:10    as a powerful and self-assured person
17:13    and a severe descendant of Pilgrim stock.
17:16    These are the only full-length portraits as I recall
17:21    of Brewster’s work. And you notice that, for example, the
17:25    colonel is all verticality
17:28    except for a baton that slashes diagonally.
17:32    And his wife is very much posed by cutting off the
17:36    dress which by implication goes outside the painting.
17:40    it gives her a kind of groundedness and stolidness which was their Puritan lot.
17:45    In December 1801 and again in January 1802,
17:50    advertisements placed in the Newburyport Herald announce that John Brewster, Jr.
17:55    was lodging at the home with Mr James Prince,
17:59    a wealthy merchant and customs collector.
18:02    And he was available to take a likeness.
18:05    Meet Mr Prince and his son, William Henry,
18:20    Prince had recently purchased his large brick house
18:22    with extensive gardens and orchards, where George Washington had once stayed and
18:28    where General Lafayette was to be Prince’s
18:30    guest. Brewster lived in this richly furnished home
18:35    for three months, while he painted James Prince
18:38    with son William Henry and the portraits of four
18:41    of his other children. These paintings have been praised as, quote,
18:46    “Veritable icons in the history of American folk art.”
18:50    we’ve already admired the painting of Sarah Prince,
18:53    at the start of this lecture. Brewster had a particular gift for painting
19:00    children and I think a particular fondness for children.
19:03    Here’s a charming two-year-old,
19:07    Francis Watts of Kennebunkport, Maine, who went on to become president at the
19:11    YMCA.
19:24    His delicate lacy clothes, a Brewster hallmark,
19:27    the delicate bird in his hand and the lighting
19:31    make him stand in relief. And they all
19:35    contribute to a feeling of gentleness.
19:38    The painting has a surreal quality for me
19:42    in part because the rules a perspective have not been followed
19:45    in part because of the stylized pine trees,
19:48    which appear in other Brewster canvases. The bird on a string is symbolic of
19:54    human mortality
19:56    for like the child’s soul it is free to fly
20:00    only after the child’s death. Because children commonly died so young
20:06    the image was often employed. One of the things that makes Brewster so attractive
20:12    to the modern eye, I think,
20:14    is the affinity of some of his portraits with modern art
20:17    In the absence of perspective and the simplification of contours.
20:22    With this painting Brewster commenced signing his canvases in pencil
20:27    on the stretchers. The charming child portrait known as “one shoe off”
20:35    is signed and dated 1807.
20:48    Disorderly attire, even as simple as a child with one shoe of and one shoe on
20:53    implied a rebellious nature. And I see a little touch of the devil in her.
20:58    In the year Brewster painted Francis Watts, 1805,
21:04    Mason Cogswell and his wife celebrated the birth of their third child,
21:09    Alice. After Helen Keller
21:12    Alice Cogswell is probably the best-known deaf woman
21:16    in history. Before Alice turned two
21:20    she contracted spotted fever as it was then called
21:23    and lost her hearing and speech. For several years her family tried fruitless
21:29    remedies
21:29    and watch painfully as her older sisters grew up
21:33    as cultivated and educated young women and developed and learned
21:38    while Alice did not. Mason Cogswell at once saw the larger human problem.
21:43    He approached some of the many people of wealth and influence in Hartford
21:48    created an organizing committee to found the for school for the Deaf
21:53    and persuaded his neighbor, Thomas Gallaudet,
21:56    to go overseas to learn methods of Deaf education.
22:00    The Connecticut Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb
22:06    opens its doors in Hartford in April 1817
22:10    with seven pupils. The first listed was twelve-year-old
22:16    Alice Cogswell. There were five more pupils,
22:19    all in their teens, and then there was one John Brewster, Jr., age 51.
22:25    Yes, John Brewster, Jr. enrolled in school at the height of his successful
22:31    career
22:32    and suspended his art.  I imagine Brewster
22:37    and Gallaudet meeting, though, there’s no record of it, but it must of course happened.
22:41    Gallaudet was the principal of the school.
22:43    And he would have said to Brewster you can’t be a student here the desks that
22:48    we made are too small.  You’d
22:49    There’s no way.  And then there’s the age difference. And then Brewster would have
22:54    said, I think, “Ah, but I can pay.”
22:56    And that made all the difference at that delicate moment in the history of Deaf
23:01    education.
23:02    In any event he stayed three years and
23:06    then he returned to Maine and to painting.
23:09    Now how very different Brewster’s style was
23:15    from the academic painting practiced in Europe at this time.
23:19    I’ve chosen as an illustration the work of a French
23:23    Deaf painter whose name was Frédéric Peysson,
23:26    a student from the renowned artist, Jean-
23:30    Auguste-Dominique Ingres I N G R E S.
23:35    At the Paris Art Salon of 1839
23:39    Peysson presented his interpretation of a legendary event
23:44    in Deaf history, the last moments of the founder of worldwide Deaf education,
23:49    the Abbé de l’Épée.
23:53    In the painting Épée is shown blessing his Deaf pupils from his deathbed.
23:58    He is attended by a delegation come to tell him that the revolutionary government
24:03    has adopted his School as a national institution
24:07    and, therefore, the education of the Deaf will go forward.
24:11    Here’s Peysson’s painting of that historic moment.
24:25    Not only is there a delegation close to his bed but there are
24:28    parents and pupils there to pay homage to the man long known as
24:33    the father of the Deaf.  Their distress is portrayed
24:37    in exaggerated and conventional symbols –
24:41    eyes rolled to heaven,
24:46    that was French academic painting and it was said to be mute poetry
24:52    and who better to write such poetry mutely with a brush than a mute,
24:58    one who communicates with signs.  The Abbé de l’Épée actually
25:03    made the point explicitly, and I quote him, “Like painting,
25:07    the art of signs is a silent language which speaks only to the eyes.
25:13    The entire scene is presented as a frozen instant.
25:17    The painter effects the illusion that he’s caught people in mid-gesture.
25:24    Significantly, Peysson signed the painting, Frédéric Peysson,
25:29    sourd-muet., deaf-mute.  By using the official style of the Académie,
25:35    the Grand Manor, and by signing their paintings, deaf-mute,
25:39    Deaf painters, like Peysson, were making a point
25:43    and striking a blow for their minority.  They were asserting the normalcy
25:48    of Deaf people and their capacity for abstractions, such as beauty and homage,
25:54    capacity which many people doubted since they knew no educated Deaf people.
26:01    In 1823, the year Brewster’s father died, our artist was painting in Maine
26:07    and New Hampshire.  The number of his paintings, that have been uncovered
26:12    at any rate, begins to diminish in these years an his last painting was apparently completed
26:18    in 1834, when he was 68 years old.
26:23    In these later years his portraits show a more nuanced and sombre
26:29    appreciation of personality.  His signed painting of Rev. Daniel Marrett
26:34    of Standish, Maine is representative.  Let’s take a look.
26:52    You see the face is heavily mottled with rose and grey shadowing
26:58    to bring out the features.  There is a certain sobriety and determination
27:03    in this man of the cloth.  The folded sermon in his hands starts with the words
27:09    “To Meet Thy God is a Solemn”
27:13    and the pastor appears solemn indeed.
27:17    No trace of our artist again for the next 17 years, but in 1852 he witnessed his niece’s will
27:25    Two years later, in 1854, John Brewster, Jr., died
27:30    and was buried in Tory Hill Cemetery at the age of 88.
27:37    John Brewster, Jr. left behind a great corpus of moving portraiture.
27:41    My book includes an inventory of some 250 portraits.
27:46    And some are still being found, if not every month, every few months
27:51    to the great joy of the unsuspecting owners.
27:56    Brewster left behind a vision, a frank and honest way of seeing people
28:03    He left behind a testimony to the perceptiveness, artistic gifts and ingenuity
28:10    of Deaf people.  Brewster did not understand with his ears.
28:15    Brewster understood with his eyes, his hands and his mind.
28:22    And to quote Victor Hugo, “What matters deafness of the ears, when the mind hears.”
28:29    Thank you very much.
28:31    Applause
28:38    Introducer: I ask everybody to use the microphone just because we are on film today
28:42    so I am going to pass that around.
28:43    Audience: Professor Lane, in reviewing his work for your book
28:46    what were the principle sources of
28:52    the troves, where was the stuff that you looked at?
28:55    Are they at private collections and other museums, where is it?
28:58    Lane: The table in my book actually gives the locations of the works, where known.
29:04    A great many of them are in museums like the MFA, the
29:07    Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection, of course, in Williamsburg,
29:10    the American Museum of Folk Art in Manhattan.
29:15    They are quite scattered. There will be a
29:18    Brewster traveling exhibit based on my book
29:21    starting in 2005 but mostly in 2006 and 7.
29:28    The nearest it is going to get to Boston, I am sorry to say,
29:31    is Portland or Old Lyme, Connecticut.
29:36    I’m not sure which is closer but it will be in Maine
29:39    in a couple of venues and also in Connecticut and
29:43    all of the way on down the coast to Orlando, FL.
29:47    But, many we don’t know where they are. They’re in private collections
29:49    and the owners prefer not to be identified.
29:55    Audience: I think I may have seen some at Old Sturbridge Village.
29:57    Is that possible?
29:58    Lane: Yes, it is.  Brewster’s parents,
30:04    the painting of his parents that we saw is to be found in Old Sturbridge Village.
30:08    And they also have a nice collection of other work from that period.
30:13    And there’s the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.  They have a Brewster so
30:18    that they are scattered.  There is a wonderful one in Houston,
30:21    one in the University, not University, Pennsylvania State University.
30:26    Yes, sir.
30:27    Audience: Where did you say that they Sarah Prince portrait is?
30:30    Lane: That’s in a private collection.
30:33    Audience: Oh.  By the Prince family?
30:35    Lane: No, a woman who inherited it from her mother who had the judgement
30:41    to buy it a long time ago.
30:42    Audience: Oh.
30:46    Audience: Professor Lane, with this book and other books you’ve written
30:50    where did your interest in the Deaf community come from in the beginning?
30:55    And to make this book, how long have you been,
30:58    to make this book how long did you research to make this book?
31:02    Lane: Well it’s a little misleading because I did it in spare time so to say
31:07    while I was teaching and doing research on other things.
31:12    But it was scattered over a period of about a decade.
31:16    My friend, David Feltner, here in the orchestra was a huge help to me and
31:20    intruding on the lovely people who live in Brewster’s house in Maine and
31:24    unearthing documents there in Buxton and in other locales.
31:30    So, it was a long and almost like a hobby in a way
31:36    Let’s see, now, you had another question, too. Yeah,
31:38    where did my interest come?
30:41    My background is in psychology and linguistics
31:44    and I was introduced to sign language and the Deaf in 1973.
31:50    And I thought it was just a fascinating opportunity to understand language and our
31:57    It made me feel that my sense of my humanity was expanded.
32:01    There was more richness.  There was more to my humanity than I knew
32:04    before,  And then I became politicized also by my Deaf friends.  And here I am.
32:19    Applause


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