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Portrait of deaf artist a few strokes short of completion

Portland Press Herald - Portland,ME,United States - Oct 31, 2004

BOOK REVIEW: William David Barry

Portrait of deaf artist a few strokes short of completion

Few stories better illustrate the unpredictability of long-term reputation than the life, career and posthumous fame of artist John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854).

During his lifetime, Brewster's portraits were little known outside his native New England. If mentioned at all, it was as one of many itinerant limners, whose work hardly constituted a serious contribution to American art. If anything set Brewster apart from his fellows, it was that he was deaf.

By the second quarter of the 20th century, interest in the artist's works began to grow as collectors and critics came to appreciate so-called primitive or folk-art. Innocent visions, as opposed to the more academic images of that time, suddenly became appreciated for artistic merit, as well as for the faces they documented. In 1960, Nina Fletcher Little, the noted scholar and collector, produced a benchmark study and catalog of Brewster's paintings in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin. By then the artist's impressive portraits of the Cutts family had become a highlight of the collections of the York Institute (Saco Museum).

Last month the new state-of-the-art educational building at Falmouth's Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf was dubbed "Brewster Hall." This new honor had to do with the fact that Brewster was born deaf as well as because of his artistic achievements and residence in Buxton.

A new book by Northeastern University psychology professor Harlan Lane, "A Deaf Artist in Early America," sets out to produce the first biography of Brewster, and he has clearly done a great deal of digging.

In brief, the artist was born to a leading Connecticut family. The painter's father was a successful physician and descendant of the Pilgrims. Indeed, the young artist did not lack for worldly comfort and took painting lessons from a neighbor, the Rev. Joseph Steward, and later moved to Maine with his brother. Beginning in the 1790s John Jr. took to the road and coastal shipping routes as a portrait painter.

For decades he took the likenesses of some of the leading people in Maine, Connecticut and other parts of the region. His unique, often haunting style not only pleased the sitters of his day but also strikes a special note with 21st-century viewers.

Author Lane has scoured resources throughout New England and has produced a new list of the artist's known works, including reprints of earlier catalogs. This, along with more than 20 color images, is a great service. Still, the information on Brewster's life, motives and work remains scant. Indeed, we may never know more, in terms of hard facts, than what Lane has assembled here.

Neither Brewster nor most of those around him kept diaries. We know from newspaper ads, sitters and other sources the general travels of the artist, and that in 1817, at the age of 51, Brewster took classes at Gallaudet's Connecticut Asylum for Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. Though the author surmised why Brewster entered Gallaudet's school, we can never really know why or indeed what skills or ideas he took away with him.

In the end, "A Deaf Artist in Early America" proves a good source book on the artist and a primer on deaf culture, communities and education in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is, also, fitfully arranged with short, choppy chapters.

Lane suggests that many deaf people have extraordinary visual sensitivity and talent. It is not an idea that I disagree with. Brewster is one of my favorite artists. But Lane never proves his point. He offers a whole chapter on present-day deaf art, yet never discusses the work of William Mercier (1773-1850), a skilled American painter whose works surely invite comparison to those of Brewster.

Lane gives us the potential makings of a good book, but to achieve that end it will need serious editing and reorganization.

William David Barry is a writer and historian from Portland.

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.



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