A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.

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One Shoe Off, 1807. Oil on canvas. Gift of Stephen C. Clark. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

John Brewster, Jr. (1766-1854) was a deaf portrait painter who created hauntingly beautiful images of American life during the formative period of the nation. Born in rural Connecticut, Brewster helped create a style of American folk portraiture that came to dominate rural New England: a striking adaptation of the English Grand Manner filtered through the works of Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl. Working in a style that emphasized simpler settings, along with broad, flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features, Brewster achieved a directness and intensity of vision rarely equaled.

Beginning in the 1790s, Brewster traveled through Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and eastern New York State in search of portrait commissions. His extant portraits show his ability to produce delicate and sensitive likenesses in full-size or miniature, and in oil on canvas or ivory. He was especially successful in capturing childhood innocence in his signature full-length likenesses of young children. In 1854 Brewster died at age eighty-eight, leaving an invaluable record of his era and a priceless artistic legacy.