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 Joseph Blackburn  ( - 1778)

About: Joseph Blackburn
 

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New Hampshire / United Kingdom/England      Known for: portrait-full figure-families, drapery

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Joseph Blackburn
from Auction House Records.
Portrait of Jonathan Simpson
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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.

Blackburn's whereabouts 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).

Blackburn 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).

Although 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.

There 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.


Source:
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 Boston are:

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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