Joseph Blackburn

(c. 1730—1778)

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Joseph Blackburn (fl. c. 1742—1787) portrait painter


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(c. 1730–78 or later).

Painter. In the 1750s his portraiture introduced to New England rococo fashions denoting a taste for refinement, gentility, and artifice. When he arrived, Blackburn found no competition in Boston or nearby cities for his stylish, even seductive rendering of his sitters' demeanor and attire. Their characteristically cheerful if generalized facial expressions affirm their enjoyment of material prosperity. Nothing is known of Blackburn's origins or training, but his skill suggests experience in London, perhaps as a drapery specialist in a large studio. He painted portraits in Bermuda between mid-1752 and the end of 1753. After approximately a year in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1755 he settled in Boston. Three years later he moved on to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. From there, he made painting excursions to other locales before relocating permanently in 1763 to England, where he painted his last known portrait in 1778. Blackburn's most ambitious American painting, Isaac Winslow and His Family (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1755) numbers among the earliest group portraits produced in the colonies. It depicts the couple and their daughters, a baby on her mother's lap and young girl, self-consciously lined up across the canvas. Adapting poses and other conventions of English portraiture to a new social environment, the artist with some success employed gesture and rhythmic patterns to animate the composition and provide a lively, informal tone. Although faces lack individuality, mouths upturned at corners indicate agreeable geniality. Their elaborate, mostly pastel-toned clothing is rendered with great care for the sheen of fabrics and the transparent play of laces. In the right-hand distance, an atmospheric landscape appears behind the young daughter. Her hair adorned with flowers and her raised skirt brimming with abundant fruits, she affects a common eighteenth-century pastoral trope.

Subjects: Art.

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