How to Be a Woman Artist in 18th century

American history, Henrietta Johnston, Uncategorized, women artists, working artist
Digging through a lot of primary sources for my History class I found a story about one incredible woman who was actually not only earning money from her paintings: but, at some point of her life, selling her art was the only income source for her family. She was the first known woman artist here in America at the beginning of 18th century. And even though her primary medium was pastel, not watercolor; her portrait paintings are vibrant and fresh, which remind me an Old School watercolor art. Too bad there is no self-portrait that I could find (oy, I better hurry and make a few more self-portraits myself that couple of centuries forward historians don’t complain when digging up my watercolors :0)

The essay below is written in academic style (bibliography, cited work, etc.) and it has emphasis on American history; but, when I wrote it I tried to imagine how women artists lived in 18th century; and how they survived.

One Portrait Two People Lives

Portrait of Anna Cuyler Van Schaick by Henrietta Johnston, 1725 Pastels, NY State Museum Collection 
Anna Cuyler’s (Mrs. Anthony Van Schaick) portrait by Henrietta Dering Johnston is dated 1725. Henrietta Johnston was noted first American woman artist who actually earned living by making art. When she painted this artwork at age 51 she was already an accomplished artist who made her name by painting portraits, mostly in pastels. Her style was well recognized and she had an established clientele among her friends and acquaintances. Being an artist at the beginning of 18th century was not an easy job even for men. Being an artist woman in the man-in-power dominated society was complicated task indeed.
Between the end of 17th century and the beginning of 18th century America is experiencing social and political turmoil. Although there was obvious expansion of English empire, the end of 17th century greatly disturbed already shaking European colonies. Variances between reach and poor, free and slave became more obvious. There was continues disagreement between settles and Indians. Religious movements tried to dominate each other. The beginning of 18th century returned stability to English North America together with economical growth and incoming immigrants seeking a better life in the New World.
It is interesting to note that Henrietta Johnston chose the portraiture and medium of her paintings as many other artists of 18th century not only due to a fashion but as well to availability, economical and commercial situation of that time:
As it was in painting, American draftsmanship before 1800 was
dominated by portraiture. Among the earliest examples of the
genre were in the medium of pastel, imported into the American
colonies as far back as the first decade of the 1700s and best
exemplified by the extensive production of one of this country’s
first notable female artists, Henrietta Johnston (ca. 1674–
1729) (Avery)
At the time when photography was not invented the artists who made portraits were quiet popular. Henrietta’s talent was not only appreciated but as well in a big demand. Unlike many women of 18th century who were not seen working as in the modern sense of understanding, Henrietta earned making her art. She was able to make what she loved to become her profession. Her life was fulfilling yet not a trouble-free. Born in France, immigrated to England, and later moved to the New World, Henrietta’s life had some glory as well as some difficulties. After being married to her first husband for ten years she became widowed at age 30 with two little children on her hands. And even thought her first husband belonged to a high society of England; after his death Henrietta’s life had to have new turn:
In 1705 she married Reverend Gideon Johnston (1668-1716), a
graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was the vicar at
Castlemore. Appointed Bishop’s Commissary in South Carolina
by the Bishop of London, in April 1708 Johnston and his wife
arrived in Charleston. (Severens)
And even though at the beginning of 18th century South Carolina where Johnston’s moved in 1708 became one of the richest British colonies in North America; the family’s personal life faced a lot of economical difficulties. But there was one precious thing that could not be taken from Henrietta; and, actually helped family to survive difficult times, her talent:
Reverend Johnston became the Rector of St. Philip’s
Episcopal Church, and repeatedly wrote to the Society of the
Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts requesting payment
of his salary, which was often delayed. In one letter he states:
“were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of
pictures…I should not be able to live,” indicating that Henrietta
Johnston was compensated for her portraits, making her the first
professional woman artist in America. (Severens)
Henrietta’s portraits are simple and show the great school although it is not known where she received her art education. We can only guess that the portraits resembled the subjects; but, they certainly have a character that the artist caught on the panel with her beautiful pastels. Her female portraits are very gentle; usually dressed in chemises and carrying feminine romantic mood. Portrait of Anna Cuyler represents Henrietta Johnston’s style in all its glory. The lady on the portrait is dressed in warm gold-toned-sepia silk gown. Her face is beautiful yet real. The artist did not simplify the features; instead, she presents the actual woman with the strong character. From New York State Museum online project we learn about Anna Cuyler that she was born in Albany in 1685 and she was the oldest daughter of Johannes and Elsie Ten Broeck Cuyler. Her father was a famous merchant and even was appointed a mayor of Albany and her mother was the daughter of one of the founders of the Albany community:
In 1712 twenty-seven-year-old Anna became the second wife of
thirty-year-old Anthony Van Schaick, Jr. He was a son of a faming-
based, early Albany business family. Over the next fourteen years,
Anna gave birth to at least nine of the previously childless Van
Schaick’s children – the last arriving as she passed her forty-first
birthday.( Bielinski)
Van Schaick family requested to paint Anna’s portrait in 1725 when Anthony Van Schaick was commissioned lieutenant and captain of militia by Governor Hunter. At the time when portrait had been painted Van Schaick family was well known and respected in the colony. Henrietta Johnston captured a young woman, a wife of the official figure, a mother of nine children in one small pastel painting. Just by looking at one portrait painted almost 300 years ago in America and by learning sources of information we can reveal the history of a country, the history of one person and her family, and the history of the artist’s life.
Cited Works
Avery, Kevin J. “Late Eighteenth-Century American Drawings.” The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. 2000-2011 The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, n.d. Web. .
Bielinski, Stefan. “Anna Cuyler Van Schaick.” The People Of Colonial Albany. New York State Museum, n.d. Web. .
Severens, Martha R. “Jonston, Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University Of South Carolina Press, n.d. Web. .

Additional Bibliography
Perry, Lee Davis. Remarkable South Carolina Women (More than Petticoats Series); Globe Pequot; First edition; ISBN-10: 0762743433
Forsyth Alexander, ed. “Henrietta Johnston: Who Greatly helped…by drawing pictures.” Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991. ISBN-10: 0945578032
Middleton, Margaret Simons, Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastelist. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966. ISBN-10: 1135797714
Foner, Eric Give Me Liberty!, Volume I, Second Seagull Edition, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-393-93255-3
In Every Piece Of My Art
There Is A Piece Of My Heart And A Sparkle Of My Soul

One thought on “How to Be a Woman Artist in 18th century

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.