Probably born and died in England. Active 175277.
Because Joseph Blackburn introduced the first accomplished model of the English rococo to Boston in 1755, it seems likely that he was trained and first worked in London. His style including the idealization of female beauty, the introduction of fanciful settings and costumes, and the exaggeration of his wealthy sitters possessions and estatesemphasized artifice over realism. Blackburn, who was neither tied to a particular city nor a true itinerant portraitist, settled briefly in various wealthy mercantile centers whose most elite members were his patrons; he spent time in Bermuda (175253), Newport (1754), Boston (175558), and Portsmouth (175862). In late 1763 he returned to London and painted portraits in southwestern England, Wales, and Dublin between 1768 and 1777. Blackburns ability to enter the leading economic and political circles of his day is evidence of his abilities as a painter relative to his competition. His success also suggests that he had mastered the manners expected of an eighteenth-century gentleman: ease, grace, and facility in conversation. Because the circumstances of Blackburns origins, training, and death remain unknown, the approximately one hundred fifty surviving portraits still provide the best documentation of his life.1
Like other colonial American painters, including Robert Feke, John Smibert, and Joseph Badger before him and John Singleton Copley after him, Blackburn derived many of his poses from English mezzotints. Those poses were rooted in the baroque tradition of Sir Godfrey Kneller (16461723) and Sir Peter Lely (16181680), as well as in the updated rococo style of Thomas Hudson (17011779). Poses inspired by the latter artist and his contemporaries added to Blackburns vocabulary of fanciful subjects such as the pastoral shepherdess and poses that extended limbs and draperies into the space surrounding the figure. Blackburn also introduced lavish costumes, garden settings, and jewels that exceeded his sitters actual possessions and that reflected their presumed tastes and desires rather than their real circumstances. He excelled at painting the shimmer and folds of silks, the textures and patterns of lace, the translucence of pearls, and the subtle shifts in volume and surface of documents, vases, and other still-life elements that grace his portraits. Because of Blackburns proficiency at representing textiles and costumes, scholars have speculated that he was trained as a drapery painter in a large London studio, perhaps that of rococo artists Thomas Hudson or Joseph Highmore (16921780).2
In 1754 Blackburn painted his earliest-known portraits on the North American mainland: Mrs. David Chesebrough (Margaret Sylvester) (1754, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), her sister Mary Sylvester (1754, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and her stepdaughter Abigail Chesebrough (1754, Stonington Historical Society, Stonington, Connecticut). These sitters were the wife, sister-in-law, and daughter of David Chesebrough, called King David for his eminence in the merchant trade in Newport. Blackburns initial stay in Newport was brief, although later portraits of subjects from this prosperous commercial center suggest that he occasionally returned. A letter of introduction written on November 25, 1754, by Thomas Vernon, son-in-law of Blackburns Newport customers Mr. and Mrs. John Brown, to James Boutineau in Boston reveals how the artist cleverly soughtand reachedthe power center of each community to which he moved:
Although Boutineaus family apparently did not order portraits, the letter illustrates Blackburns method of operation. He carried himself as a gentleman, and his own accomplishments in genteel deportment facilitated his access to those aspiring to the heights of American commerce, politics, and the military. The graceful, sometimes dancelike, poses that Blackburn captured are further evidence of the genteel arts he had learned. Similarly, his neatly printed and occasionally scripted signatures demonstrate his mastery of penmanship, a skill that was both utilitarian and, if well-done, indicative of great refinement. His inscriptions also reveal his studies (and their limits), in that he used Latinnot just the commonly employed word Pinxit to identify himself as creator of a painting but also Natus or Nata (preceding the birth date of a sitter), Aetatis (with the age of a sitter), and Depictus (prior to the date painted); he did, however, disregard gender agreement with the subject.5 These genteel qualities clearly distinguished Blackburn from the artisan Joseph Badger, the painter-glazier in Boston who was among his few competitors for portrait commissions when Blackburn arrived there in 1755. Not only was Blackburn a superior artist, but he also comported himself like the members of the gentility whom he sought to paint.
Blackburns productive stay in Boston can be documented by his many signed and dated portraits and by two letters from a woman named Mary Russell. An excerpt from the first one, written to a Samuel Curwen in February 1757, reads: "I am entirely of your mind that it is quite time your pictures were finished. I hope to have the pleasure of waiting on you to Mr. Blackburns very soon in order to their finishing." This letter expresses an impatience on the part of Blackburns sitters and hints that visits to the artists studio were social events, establishing a custom that the charming Gilbert Stuart would encourage. The second letter was written to Mary Russells brother-in-law, Chambers Russell:
This second letter confirms that eighteenth-century viewers admired in Blackburn what twentieth-century art historians regard as his chief strength: technical ability at painting costume. Her negative commentary implies that Blackburns sitters expected to be represented with an affable quality that was decidedly absent from Mrs. Russells "stiff and prim" portrait. Obviously, the mid-eighteenth-century code of gentility was clearly replacing the older demand for Puritan sobriety found in John Smiberts portraits of the previous generation and in Joseph Badgers contemporary portraits. Mary Russells assessment that Blackburns portraits were good likenesses contradicts the perceptions of modern viewers who have seen in them an idealization and standardization of features, especially in his female sitters.7
Joseph Blackburn dramatically influenced the visual arts in Boston. Smibert, who died in 1751, had introduced the Lely-Kneller school of baroque painting. Robert Feke and John Greenwood, who had left Boston before Blackburn arrived, continued that tradition and added a few rococo poses that they had absorbed from imported engravings. Badger possessed limited skills as a draftsman and little imagination in varying his poses. By contrast, Blackburn demonstrated a firsthand understanding of the latest London fashion. He brought with him a new range of poses, including a greater sense of movement, as well as a lighter palette and an overall decorative surface filled with shimmering fabrics, colorful flowers and birds, and lavish garden settings. He thus added to the iconography of American portraiture and expanded the imaginative aspects of American painting to include whimsical clothing and locations. To enhance their rococo decorative appeal, Blackburns portraits were often surrounded by deeply carved, pierced gilt frames, as opposed to the shallow-carved, solid black-and-gold frames that were then standard in Boston.
Significantly, Blackburn influenced the young John Singleton Copley, who would become the most accomplished painter in the American colonies. Copley was sixteen years old when Blackburn arrived in his native city, and he quickly absorbed the emigrant artists penchant for the rococo style. Blackburns pastoral portrait Mary Sylvester (fig. 3) is often cited as a prototype for Copleys Ann Tyng (Mrs. Thomas Smelt) (fig. 4).8 The art historian Paul Staiti recently proposed that both portraits derive from Thomas Hudsons Mary Carew (fig. 5), the composition of which was available as a 1744 mezzotint by James Lovelace. Besides this large, three-quarter-length model, Copley followed Blackburns smaller, oval, half-length formatas seen, for instance, in a comparison between the latters Ruth Cunningham (Mrs. James Otis) (1755, location unknown) and the younger artists Jane Browne (Mrs. Samuel Livermore) (1756, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).9
Copley initially followed Blackburns lead, and ultimately proved to be a more inventive artist and a superior draftsman. His realism and distinctively dramatic chiaroscuro modeling would surpass Blackburns tendency toward idealization and suffused light. The Copley scholar Jules Prown has observed that Blackburns 1758 portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Simpson (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) show greater realism, clarity, linearity, and stronger value contrasts than his earlier work. 10 Indeed, the two artists similar styles have led to confusion about several beautiful paintings that were once thought to be Blackburns finest achievements but that are now firmly attributed to Copleyfor example, Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (about 175758, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) and Mary and Elizabeth Royall (about 1758, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The confusion is heightened by the fact that, sometimes, the same family would commission portraits by both artists. For instance, Blackburns Hannah Babcock (Mrs. John Bours) was followed by a portrait of her husband, Copleys John Bours. Similarly, Blackburns Mrs. Epes Sargent (Catharine Winthrop) (about 1755) preceded Copleys Epes Sargent (1760, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). It is tempting to see Blackburns rococo style as a feminine counterpart to Copleys more masculine realism, but the commissions also may reflect a shift in taste, the ascendance of Copley as the more esteemed painter, or simply Blackburns absence from Newport in the case of Bours and Boston in the instance of Sargent.
In any event, these entanglements mark a changing of the guard. Although Blackburn enjoyed several productive years in Boston, he moved at about this time to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, another thriving port. There, too, he painted the mercantile and political elite, including members of the Atkinson, Warner, and Wentworth families. Among the three-quarter-length pendants he painted there were Colonel Theodore Atkinson and Mrs. Theodore Atkinson (1760, Cleveland Museum of Art). At about this time, he also painted his only known full-length portraits: Governor Benning Wentworth (1760) and Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth (1760, both New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord). Paintings of subjects in Boston and Newburyport, Massachusetts, and in Portsmouth and Exeter, New Hampshire, from 1758 and 1759 suggest that Blackburn was mobile during this more competitive period. But by 1760, the Portsmouth tax collector counted him as a resident and classified him as a "limner." 11 Blackburns stay in Portsmouth yields another piece of the scant documentary evidence from his careera manuscript receipt for Mrs. Nathaniel Barrell (Sarah Sayward) (1761, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, on view at the Sayward Mansion, York, New Hampshire). The receipt is signed by Blackburn and records the following payment: "Portsmo. July 12, 1762 Receivd of Jono Sayword Esq. by the hands of Joseph Barrell, Ten Guineas in-full his Daughters Picture" 12 This document fixes Blackburns price for a three-quarter-length portrait at ten guineas, compared to Copleys fees in 1764 of eight guineas sterling.13 Although Copley was taking over Blackburns place as the preeminent portraitist in New England, Blackburn still commanded the higher fees.
In late 1763, Blackburn decided to return to England. He arrived in London and, in January 1764, collected twenty-one pounds from the firm of Trecothick and Thomlinson on behalf of his Portsmouth patron Jonathan Warner; presumably, this was payment for Jonathan Warner (1761, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Mrs. Jonathan Warner (Mary Osborne) (1761, Warner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire).14 Blackburn soon moved away from London, probably because his version of the rococo was significantly out-of-date when compared to the dominant Grand Manner style of Sir Joshua Reynolds (17231792) and the informal, painterly portraiture of Thomas Gainsborough (17271788). Blackburn opted instead for the provincial market, completing at least sixteen portraits between 1768 and 1777 in southwestern England, Wales, and Dublin.15 His last known dated portrait is Hugh Jones (1777), which clearly reflects the style that served him so well in America. Beyond that, there is no record of Blackburns further career or of his death.
2. Park 1919a, 70 and 75. Alternatively, C. H. Collins Baker (1945, 3440) contended that Blackburn was a native-born artist.
3. Watlington 1953, 14.
4. Newport Historical Society, as quoted in Stevens 1967, 101.
5. Morgan and Foote (1937, 15, 21, 22) report both the Latin inscriptions and their grammatical mistakes. Although Blackburn signed and dated his portraits throughout his career, the longer inscriptions seem to have appeared only on his Bermuda portraits.
6. As quoted in Park 1923a, 56. Mary Russells letters are in the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
7. See, for example, Bolton and Binsse 1930a.
8. Prown 1966, I, 22; Staiti, in Rebora 1995, 17677.
9. Bolton and Binsse 1930a, 50; Prown 1966, I, 23.
10. Prown 1966, I, 25.
11. Aykroyd 1975, 233.
12. As reproduced in Morgan 1919c, . This document is now in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston.
13. For Copleys prices, see Prown 1966, I, 9798.
14. The account of Trecothick and Thomlinson with Jonathan Warner is reproduced and quoted in Morgan and Foote 1937, 10 and opp. 10.
15. Dresser 1966a, 41.