|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Portrait painter Joseph Blackburn was likely born in Great Britain.
His parentage and details of his early life are unknown. The
earliest record of Blackburn as a painter is his arrival in Bermuda in
1752. During his two-year stay there he painted at least
twenty-five portraits for the Pigott, Jones, Harvey, Tucker, Gilbert,
and Butterfield families. A number of these pictures remain on
the island in the hands of descendants.|
In the best of these,
such as Mrs. Thomas Jones, Blackburn exhibited a considerable skill at
painting lace and ribbon and other details of dress. This ability has
led some scholars to speculate that he was first trained as a drapery
painter in a larger English studio.
after leaving Bermuda for the American colonies on the mainland are
well documented, as he signed and dated over half of the more than one
hundred portraits by him that survive. He apparently arrived in
Newport, Rhode Island, in 1754, then continued northward to Boston,
where he spent the next few years. He brought with him to Boston at
least one letter, which introduced "the bearor 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" (Stevens, p. 101).
found little competition upon his arrival in Boston. John Smibert had
died in 1751, Robert Feke had ceased painting there by 1752, and John
Greenwood had gone to Surinam. Only three artists remained:
Joseph Badger, an artist of only marginal skills, and two beginners,
Nathaniel Smibert and John Singleton Copley. Blackburn quickly
capitalized on this artistic vacuum and over the next five years
painted several dozen portraits for many leading Boston families, such
as the Olivers, Bowdoins, Pittses, and Winslows.
Blackburn's most ambitious painting, Isaac Winslow and His Family
(1755), set a new standard for stylish group portraiture in colonial
Boston. His style relied on the same light, pastel colors favored
by Feke, but his poses are more fanciful and his modeling skills more
adept. Bostonians embraced him enthusiastically, and around 1757 one
patron wrote: "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, besides taking so exact a likeness" (Park, p. 273).
Blackburn produced a number of successful Boston portraits during the
1750s, among them Andrew Oliver Jr. (1755), Susan Apthorp (1757), and
Lieutenant General Jeffrey Amherst (1758), Copley quickly assimilated
the qualities of his more experienced competitor. By 1758 Copley
had achieved technical parity with Blackburn. He also had begun
to surpass Blackburn in his versatility, particularly his ability to
capture a vigorous ruggedness, which Copley's increasingly numerous
sitters welcomed. This probably contributed to Blackburn's
decision to relocate to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that year.
he had the opportunity to paint two formal and highly traditional
full-length portraits of Governor Benning Wentworth and Lieutenant
Governor John Wentworth (both 1760) to hang as a pair in the principal
room of the Wentworth house. After five years in Portsmouth,
during which time he made occasional trips to Exeter, New Hampshire,
and Newburyport, Massachusetts, Blackburn went to England, perhaps
because he was unable to sustain himself on the level of patronage he
found in and around Portsmouth.
With his departure for
England, Blackburn became an even more elusive artist, and knowledge of
his career is limited to the handful of portraits from these last years
(1763-1778). In 1767 he is known to have been in Dublin, where he
signed and dated a Portrait of a Young Girl Holding a Dublin Lottery Ticket.
He may be the same Mr. Blackburn who exhibited three history pictures
at the Free Society of Artists (London) in 1769. His career
continued at least until 1778, when documented examples of his work
cease. Blackburn is among a handful of painters who achieved success in
the American colonies before John Singleton Copley.
American National Biography Online
Bibliography from Richard Saunders, biographer of the artist:
The first important
assessment of Blackburn is Lawrence Park, "Joseph Blackburn--Portrait
Painter," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n.s., 32
(Oct. 1922): 270-329, which includes a checklist of his known work.
This checklist was expanded and refined in John Hill Morgan and Henry
Wilder Foote, "An Extension of Lawrence Park's Descriptive List of
the Works of Joseph Blackburn," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian
Society, n.s., 46 (Apr. 1936): 15-81.
More recent articles
focusing on his regional accomplishments in Newport, Portsmouth, and
William B. Stevens, Jr., "Joseph Blackburn and His Newport
Sitters, 1754-1756," Newport History 40 (Summer 1967): 95-107;
Elizabeth Ackroyd, "Joseph Blackburn, Limner in Portsmouth," Historical
New Hampshire 30 (Winter 1975): 231-43
Andrew Oliver, "The Elusive
Mr. Blackburn," Colonial Society of Massachusetts 59 (1982): 379-92.
See also Richard H. Saunders and Ellen G. Miles, American Colonial Portraits, 1700-1776 (1987).
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