John Wollaston


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(probably before 1720–75 or later).

Painter. His style of portraiture, offering a new level of chic, took New York by storm after he arrived from London in 1749. At least until Joseph Blackburn started working in New England a few years later, he was North America's best-trained painter. Only Jeremiah Theus, working in distant Charleston, South Carolina, could offer a version of the newly fashionable rococo that Wollaston dispensed. After three years in New York, Wollaston worked for about a year and a half in the mid-Atlantic region. In Virginia from 1755 through most of 1757 (or possibly into 1758), he then moved on to Philadelphia. Between mid-1759 and the fall of 1765, when he appeared in Charleston, his whereabouts are undocumented, but evidence suggests he remained abroad, very likely in the West Indies. In 1767 he repatriated permanently to England, where he was last recorded in 1775. Born in London, Wollaston was probably the son of a portrait painter also named John. (His surname is sometimes spelled Woolaston or Woolston.) The younger Wollaston's first documented work dates to 1742, although several attributed pieces were completed earlier. As he achieved moderate success in the English capital, Wollaston's style evolved from the heavy, Knelleresque, late Baroque style of his father's generation to the lighter rococo that he imported to America. A pronounced mannerism, the tendency to slant eyes toward an almond shape, derives from English fashion of the 1740s. This affectation must have appealed to style-conscious colonists, for a number of native artists imitated the effect. Although stiffness in composition and poses marks much of Wollaston's formulaic work, colonists were apparently dazzled by his ability to confirm their social standing with glamorous costumes and a mood of festive nonchalance. After he left New York, Wollaston's paintings became more ambitious. Larger in size, more monumental, and usually including landscape backgrounds or other elaborate settings and props, they may reflect the greater wealth and more grandiose ambitions of mid-Atlantic and Southern colonists.

Subjects: Art.

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