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.
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 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 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 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 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
8:39 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
12:12 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 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
19:24 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 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
22:32 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
23:02 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.
28:38 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.