From the early days of settlement, colonists demonstrated interest in sustaining the portrait traditions of their homelands. Until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, nearly all painters and sculptors produced likenesses, if only because willing patrons could be found. Beginning in the 1840s photography began to undercut this source of steady employment, and by the twentieth century the new medium commanded the portrait field. Throughout the colonial period, portraiture dominated the practice of painting and claimed the finest artists' attention. The first important artist to practice in the North American colonies, the anonymous Freake Painter, painted portraits in an exquisite, late Elizabethan mode during the 1670s. John Smibert brought an up-to-date Baroque style to New England in 1729. Robert Feke, the most accomplished American painter of the 1740s, practiced in a lighter and more graceful mode, modeled on rococo precedents. From the 1760s until he left in 1774 for London, John Singleton Copley painted portraits in a powerful, highly realistic style. Gilbert Stuart dominated portraiture after the Revolution. His painterly style and romantic, individualistic concept of personality suited leading citizens of the new republic. Especially during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Thomas Sully provided Americans with glamorous, lively images of themselves, in a fluid style indebted to the great English portraitists of the period. The work of Chester Harding reflected the same English precedents, but he preferred a blunter, down-to-earth realism. In the same period, widespread popular appreciation for portraiture encouraged many aspiring artists who had little or no academic training to make a career in art. Sometimes itinerant, they worked throughout the country but particularly in New England, practicing simplified forms of the high-style portraiture of urban centers. Among them, Ammi Phillips developed a particularly cogent manner emphasizing pattern, color, and observed detail. In the same period, George Catlin specialized in portraits of Indians from the West. Portrait sculpture was less common, but nevertheless formed an important component in the practice of most of the period's sculptors, such as Horatio Greenough, Erastus Dow Palmer, and Hiram Powers.
In the 1840s photography began to attract sitters with an appeal to objectivity. Yet the traditional associations of the painted image and its idealizing or interpretive possibilities sustained painted portraiture throughout the century. The best portrait photographers combined factuality with compositions, poses, and other conventions learned from portrait painting. Albert Southworth and Mathew Brady rank among early masters. In mid-century, G. P. A. Healy became the first American portrait painter acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. His later work, like that of many competitors after the Civil War, often displays a literalism attributable to the influence of photography. Yet, among others who resisted the look of the new technology, such painters as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent extended the viability of the painted portrait until after 1900. In the years around the turn of the century, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, and other photographers associated with pictorialism produced sensitive portrait work. Among realist painters of the early twentieth century, Robert Henri made a specialty of the genre. Edward Steichen's stylish, sharp-focus images of the 1920s and 1930s, often picturing celebrities of the day, promoted the authority of photography as the preferred medium for later portraiture. Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and Irving Penn have numbered among notable practitioners. During the later twentieth century, Alice Neel sustained the vitality of painted portraiture with expressionistic impressions, while Andy Warhol brought to portraiture a pop art gloss.