Joseph Blackburn


(Jonathan) (c. 1700–1778)
was an eighteenth-century colonial portrait painter who introduced the rococo style of portraiture to America from Europe. He is believed to have been born inEngland, but details of his early life are unknown. His earliest portraits were painted in Bermuda (from 1752 to 1783), where he painted at least twenty-five likenessesof members of the Pigott, Jones, Harvey, Tucker, Gilbert, and Butterfield families. Based on the artist’s skill in depicting the details of then-fashionable decorativefabrics, scholars have speculated that he may have been a drapery painter while living in England. Some of Blackburn’s Bermuda portraits survive in the collections of the sitters’ descendents, and likenesses of at least two members of Thomas Gilbert’s family are in the collection of the Bermuda National Gallery.Blackburn left Bermuda for New England in 1753, and spent a decade in Boston, where he became that city’s leading portrait painter. A letter of introduction from agrateful Newport, Rhode Island, client to a possible Boston customer lauds “the bearor Mr. Blackburne to your favor & friendship, he is late from the Island of Bermuda a Limner by profession & is allow’d to excel in that science.” During his stay in Boston, Blackburn painted several dozen portraits of members of the city’smost distinguished families, including the Bowdoins, Olivers, Pitts, and Winslows. Based on the evidence, the artist’s extant portraits are of Andrew Oliver Jr. (1755), Susan Apthorp (1757), Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst (1758), Gov. BenningWentworth, and Lt. Gov. John Wentworth (both 1760). Moveover, Blackburn was mentor to John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), undoubtedly the most artisticallyaccomplished and financially successful American colonial portraitist. Scholars credit Blackburn for his “important and lasting influence upon Copley’s artisticdevelopment,” and suggest that evidence of such an influence was reflected in Copley’s shimmering textiles, rococo poses (loose hair, stylized features), compositions(oval bust-length format), and themes (pastoral). Copley, like Blackburn, collected imported contemporary mezzotints. As Blackburn’s patronage faded, however,Copley’s fame grew. Blackburn returned to England in 1763, and a handful of portraits from the last years of his life in Europe (1763 to 1778) have been identified.Blackburn is also known to have journeyed to Dublin, in 1767, where he signed and dated the
Portrait of a Young Girl Holding a Dublin Lottery Ticket
See also
Painting, American Folk
Ackroyd, Elizabeth. “Joseph Blackburn, Limner in Portsmouth.”
Historical New Hampshire,
vol. 30 (winter 1975): 231–243.Foote, Henry Wilder, and John Hill Morgan. “An Extension of Lawrence Park’s Descriptive List of the Works of Joseph Blackburn.”
Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society,
vol. 46 (April 1936): 15–81.Miles, Ellen, and Richard H.Saunders.
American Colonial Portraits, 1770–1776.
Washington, D.C., 1987.Oliver, Andrew. “The Elusive Mr. Blackburn.”
Colonial Society of Massachusetts,
vol. 59 (1982): 379–392.Park, Lawrence. “Joseph Blackburn: Portrait Painter.”
Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society,
vol. 322 (October 1922): 270–329.Stevens, William B. Jr. “Joseph Blackburn and His Newport Sitters, 1754–1756.”
Newport History,
vol. 40 (summer 1967): 95–107.