Early American Paintings in the Worcester Art Museum includes biographies of twenty artists, detailed entries on fifty-three paintings, and checklist information on twenty-four additional works. Each of the seventy-seven works is illustrated. This catalogue encompasses all of the paintings in the museum's collection that were created prior to 1830 by artists who were either born or active in America, including works painted abroad by those artists. As such, there are catalogue entries on a portrait executed in Wales by the English-born Joseph Blackburn after his more than a decade of activity in America, several works done in England by the American natives Ralph Earl and Benjamin West, and a portrait executed in Paris by the New York artist John Vanderlyn.

Writing this catalogue provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the museum's collection. Stephen Salisbury III (1835–1905), its founder and principal early benefactor, donated fourteen Salisbury family portraits to the museum, including works by the relatively little known artists Christian Gullager and John Ritto Penniman and the more renowned painters Gilbert Stuart and Chester Harding. The Salisbury Family Papers at the American Antiquarian Society provide remarkably thorough documentation of the circumstances under which the portraits were commissioned and created; those details are discussed at length in the analysis section of the appropriate entries. Salisbury also donated a substantial collection of American miniatures and decorative arts objects to the museum, which are beyond the scope of this catalogue.

Between 1908 and 1989, the museum purchased thirty-five of the early American paintings that are now in the collection; all but eight of those were acquired prior to 1950. Several other paintings were purchased but have since been deaccessioned or determined to be fakes. Among the purchased works are some of Worcester's most celebrated early American paintings, including John Singleton Copley's John Bours (purchased 1908), Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait (purchased 1948), and John Freake (purchased 1963) by an unidentified seventeenth-century artist. At the same time that John Freake was purchased, its companion portrait, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, was donated to the museum.

Gifts and bequests made between 1899 and 1997 account for the remaining twenty-eight early American paintings in the collection. Whereas most of the purchases were made in the first half of the century, the majority of the gifts were accessioned after 1950. The first gift of an early American painting was made in 1899 by cousins of Stephen Salisbury, who gave the notable Gilbert Stuart portrait Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton (Mrs. Perez Morton). The single largest bequest of early American paintings consisted of five eighteenth-century portraits of various members of the Waldo family (related to the Salisbury family by marriage in the eighteenth century) of Boston and Worcester—two portraits by Joseph Badger, two by Christian Gullager, and one by John Waldo Durant. That bequest came from a Waldo descendant named Hester Newton Wetherell. In addition to the portraits, the Wetherell bequest included funds that were used to purchase the Copley portrait of John Bours. In 1965 the museum received another major contribution to its collection: the Paine Charitable Trust gave the museum Stuart's portrait Russell Sturgis and silver by Paul Revere (1734–1818). Revere made the silver pieces in 1773 for Lois Orne on the occasion of her marriage to Dr. William Paine, and the pieces in the Paine Trust's gift joined other examples already in the collection from the same set. The museum would later purchase Joseph Badger's portrait of Lois Orne and that of her sister Rebecca Orne.

There are five entry points into the body of the catalogue the time line; buttons that lead to sections arranged by artist, genre, and place of origin; and a search box. The time line includes one work by each of the twenty artists for whom a biography and one or more in-depth entries are available, as well as a few additional paintings by artists who did not receive extensive attention in the catalogue. The select-by-artist section offers an alphabetical listing of the artists in the museum's early American collection, along with a short title and a thumbnail photograph of each of their paintings. The select-by-genre section organizes the same photographs and information into four categories—history paintings, landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. As is generally true of early American paintings, most of those in the Worcester Art Museum are portraits. The select-by-place-of-origin section arranges the works according to the locations where they were created. Finally, the search box allows for more open-ended attempts to find a work.

The artist page includes an image of each painting by that artist in the collection. Clicking on one of those images connects the user to the catalogue entry for that work, which is divided into three parts. The first of those parts, Catalog Information, is composed of a caption, inscriptions, provenance, references, and exhibition history. The second part, Technical Notes, reports on the conservator's physical examination of each painting as well as his notes on the frame. The third part, Discussion, includes a detailed description of the painting, a biography of the sitter or patron, and an art historical analysis of the work.

David R. Brigham, Curator of American Art
Laura K. Mills, Curatorial Assistant of American Art
Philip Klausmeyer, Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Paintings Conservation