John Greenwood

(1727—1792) portrait painter and auctioneer

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Painter and printmaker. Besides portraits, he is known for early attempts to broaden the range of acceptable subjects in colonial art. He is credited with the first major North American genre painting, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (Saint Louis Art Museum, 1757–58). Although the uninhibited subjects of this Hogarthian tavern scene are Anglo-Americans (many are identifiable), the locale is the South American colony (once known as Dutch Guiana), where Greenwood lived for six and a half years. Born in Boston, in 1742 he was apprenticed to Thomas Johnston (1708–1767), a sometime portrait painter and prolific engraver of maps, city views, bookplates, and other items. In addition, Johnston's all-purpose shop made signs and did varied decorative work. (His sons William [1732–1772] and John [1753–1818] developed into creditable portraitists, and John also painted still lifes.) By 1747 Greenwood was undertaking portraits professionally. He soon achieved some success, although his rather stiff images show a colonial painter's typical compositional dependence on imported engravings, as well as technical limitations in drawing and paint application. They also reveal a venturesome artist whose unevenness suggests a willingness to take risks. His best-known painting, the ambitious Greenwood-Lee Family (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, c. 1747) emulates John Smibert's Bermuda Group and Robert Feke's portrait of the Isaac Royall family. Unprecedented in the colonies as the subject of an independent work of art, the mezzotint Jersey Nanny (known in only a single impression, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1748) presents a working-class woman, whose uncouth, buxom image is accompanied by a light-hearted poem. Greenwood left in 1752 for Paramaibo, the capital of Surinam, where he became a successful portraitist. In 1758 he went to Amsterdam to pursue mezzotint engraving. By 1763 he had settled permanently in London. Abroad, his work became more adroit, but in England he worked primarily as an art dealer. He died in Margate, Kent. As the first native-born artistic talent to leave the New World in search of better training and opportunities, he initiated a pattern that prevailed for the next two centuries. Unlike many who followed, however, Greenwood exerted negligible influence on the course of American art.

Subjects: Art.

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