Joseph Blackburn
Probably born and died in England. Active 1752–77.

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 estates—emphasized 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 (1752–53), Newport (1754), Boston (1755–58), and Portsmouth (1758–62). In late 1763 he returned to London and painted portraits in southwestern England, Wales, and Dublin between 1768 and 1777. Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s 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 (1646–1723) and Sir Peter Lely (1618–1680), as well as in the updated rococo style of Thomas Hudson (1701–1779). Poses inspired by the latter artist and his contemporaries added to Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s 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 (1692–1780).2

Figure 1. Joseph Blackburn, Mary Lea Harvey (Mrs. John Harvey), 1753, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 in. (91.4 x 71.1 cm), Collection of Dr. Eugenius Harvey, Paget, Bermuda. Photograph courtesy of Bermuda National Gallery.

In 1752 Joseph Blackburn arrived in Bermuda, where he painted leaders of elite society, including members of the Jones, Harvey, and Tucker families. After quickly completing more than thirty portraits, he moved a year later to Newport, Rhode Island, one of the shipping capitals of the Atlantic trade. The accomplished portraits Blackburn produced in Bermuda reflect many of the characteristics for which he would become known in Boston and other New England port cities: elegant works in pastel colors that depict the sitters as wealthy, graceful, and refined. Noteworthy paintings from Bermuda include Mary Lee Harvey (Mrs. John Harvey) (fig. 1), a seated half-length portrait of a fifty-three-year-old woman holding an open book and a fan in her lap. Mrs. Harvey, adorned with a lacy cap, a strand of pearls, and lavish lace and ribbons at her neck, bodice, and sleeves, conveys a stately air. In Bermuda, Blackburn was once called upon to scoura pair of seventeenth-century British portraits painted in the Lely-Kneller tradition, but he declined, saying they were masterpieces. This anecdote suggests the skills expected of an eighteenth-century artist in the colonies as well as the young artist’s deference toward his artistic forebears.3

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. Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s Newport customers Mr. and Mrs. John Brown, to James Boutineau in Boston reveals how the artist cleverly sought—and reached—the power center of each community to which he moved:

I hope youl excuse the liberty I shall now take of recommending the bearer Mr Blackburne to your favor & friendship, he is late from the Island of Bermuda a Limner by profession & is allow’d to excell in that science, has now spent some months in this place, & behav’d in all respects as becomes a Gentleman, being possess’d with the agreeable qualities of great modesty, good sence & genteel behaviour he purposes if suitable encouragements to make some stay in Boston, and will be an entire stranger there XXX, shall therefore be obliged to you or friends for any civilities you are pleased to shew him, my best Compliments with Mrs Vernons to your good lady Miss Sucky and Miss Nancy & who’s Pictures I expect to see in Boston drawn by the above Gent[lema]n.4

Although Boutineau’s family apparently did not order portraits, the letter illustrates Blackburn’s 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 Latin—not 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.

Figure 2. Joseph Blackburn, Isaac Winslow and His Family, 1755, oil on canvas, 54 1/2 x 79 1/4 in. (138.4 x 201.3 cm), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Abraham Shuman Collection, 42.684. Reproduced with permission. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.

One of Blackburn’s first patrons in Boston was Isaac Winslow, who commissioned one of the artist’s most ambitious group portraits, Isaac Winslow and His Family (fig. 2). The group portrait was then still uncommon in colonial America; only a few are known to precede this picture, most notably John Smibert’s The Bermuda Group (1728–39, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), Robert Feke’s The Royall Family (1741, Harvard University Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts), and John Greenwood’s The Greenwood-Lee Family (about 1747, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Like David Chesebrough in Newport, Isaac Winslow was among the wealthiest merchants in Boston. Between 1755 and 1762, Blackburn received commissions for about sixty surviving or documented portraits from patrons who included merchants, governors, military officers, and ministers, although the more austere tastes of the latter were not ideally served by the artist’s rococo palette and compositions. Blackburn painted few children compared to his contemporary Joseph Badger, more than one-third of whose portraits represent youths.

Blackburn’s 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. Blackburn’s very soon in order to their finishing." This letter expresses an impatience on the part of Blackburn’s sitters and hints that visits to the artist’s studio were social events, establishing a custom that the charming Gilbert Stuart would encourage. The second letter was written to Mary Russell’s brother-in-law, Chambers Russell:

Have you sat for your picture? Is the mouth placed in the proper order? Do your eyes roll about? Tell Mr. Blackburn that Miss Lucy is in love with his pictures, wonders what business he has to make such extreme fine lace and satin, and besides taking so exact a likeness.

It is thought your lady makes the worst appearance in Mr. Blackburn’s room, that she is stiff and prim and wants an agreeable something but that may be and yet a good likeness. I hope you will excuse the freedom from yours and your Lady’s

Aff. Friend,

Mary Russell6

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 Blackburn’s sitters expected to be represented with an affable quality that was decidedly absent from Mrs. Russell’s "stiff and prim" portrait. Obviously, the mid-eighteenth-century code of gentility was clearly replacing the older demand for Puritan sobriety found in John Smibert’s portraits of the previous generation and in Joseph Badger’s contemporary portraits. Mary Russell’s assessment that Blackburn’s 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, Blackburn’s 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 artist’s penchant for the rococo style. Blackburn’s pastoral portrait Mary Sylvester (fig. 3) is often cited as a prototype for Copley’s Ann Tyng (Mrs. Thomas Smelt) (fig. 4).8 The art historian Paul Staiti recently proposed that both portraits derive from Thomas Hudson’s 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 Blackburn’s smaller, oval, half-length format—as seen, for instance, in a comparison between the latter’s Ruth Cunningham (Mrs. James Otis) (1755, location unknown) and the younger artist’s Jane Browne (Mrs. Samuel Livermore) (1756, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).9

Figure 3. Joseph Blackburn, Mary Sylvester, about 1754, oil on canvas, 49 7/8 x 40 in. (126.7 x 102.1 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Sylvester Dering, 1916. (16.68.2). All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright notice.

Figure 4. John Singleton Copley, Ann Tyng (Mrs. Thomas Smelt), 1756, oil on canvas, 50 1/8 x 40 3/8 in. (127.3 x 102.6 cm), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, Bequest of Grace M. Edwards in memory of her mother, 39.646. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.

Figure 5. James Lovelace after Thomas Hudson, Mary Carew, 1744, mezzotint, 13 7/8 x 11 in. (35.2 x 27.9 cm), Trustees of the British Museum, London.

Copley initially followed Blackburn’s lead, and ultimately proved to be a more inventive artist and a superior draftsman. His realism and distinctively dramatic chiaroscuro modeling would surpass Blackburn’s tendency toward idealization and suffused light. The Copley scholar Jules Prown has observed that Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s finest achievements but that are now firmly attributed to Copley—for example, Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (about 1757–58, 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, Blackburn’s Hannah Babcock (Mrs. John Bours) was followed by a portrait of her husband, Copley’s John Bours. Similarly, Blackburn’s Mrs. Epes Sargent (Catharine Winthrop) (about 1755) preceded Copley’s Epes Sargent (1760, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). It is tempting to see Blackburn’s rococo style as a feminine counterpart to Copley’s more masculine realism, but the commissions also may reflect a shift in taste, the ascendance of Copley as the more esteemed painter, or simply Blackburn’s 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 Blackburn’s stay in Portsmouth yields another piece of the scant documentary evidence from his career—a 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 Receiv’d of Jono Sayword Esq. by the hands of Joseph Barrell, Ten Guineas in-full his Daughters Picture" 12 This document fixes Blackburn’s price for a three-quarter-length portrait at ten guineas, compared to Copley’s fees in 1764 of eight guineas sterling.13 Although Copley was taking over Blackburn’s 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 (1723–1792) and the informal, painterly portraiture of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). 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 Blackburn’s further career or of his death.


1. The main sources on Blackburn are Park 1923a; Bolton and Binsse 1930a; Morgan and Foote 1937; Baker 1945; Dresser 1966a; Prown 1966, I, 23–27; Stevens 1967; Aykroyd 1975; Oliver 1982; and Craven 1986, 296–304.

2. Park 1919a, 70 and 75. Alternatively, C. H. Collins Baker (1945, 34–40) 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, 5–6. Mary Russell’s 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, 176–77.

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, [228]. This document is now in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston.

13. For Copley’s prices, see Prown 1966, I, 97–98.

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.