This portrait by the British painter Thomas Hudson has just been added to American Identities, the installation of the Museum’s world-renowned collections of American art.
While these galleries display works of vast diversity in terms of date, medium, style, and cultural origin, the featured artists have generally always worked in the Americas. We’re making an exception to include this British painting in the gallery devoted to the colonial experience, where it will join objects made in North and South America. From an historical and aesthetic standpoint, this addition makes a lot of sense. Anglo-Americans who settled in the British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries frequently looked to the mother country for artistic inspiration. When elite patrons commissioned a portrait, they wanted to emulate the latest styles in London as a sign of their cultural refinement. And, during the mid-eighteenth century, Thomas Hudson was one of the most sought out portraitists by London’s high society. The portrait of Mrs. John Wendt is typical of Hudson’s manner in which he combines the grandeur of earlier Baroque images of royals, with the soft, pastel colors favored by the current Rococo style. Such portrait trends traveled across the Atlantic in several ways: by English-trained artists working in the colonies, by Americans traveling overseas, and by printed reproductions of works of art imported from abroad.
For this British “incursion” into the American galleries, Hudson’s work will hang near American-made paintings of the same period, including the stunning portraits of an unidentified woman by native-born Robert Feke and of the Philadelphian Deborah Hall by British immigrant William Williams. Comparing these works, you can see how the American ladies had themselves portrayed in the same manner as their European counterparts—with sumptuous dresses, elegant poses, and stylish accessories (lace, jewelry, and flowers). This grouping speaks to the vibrant nature of globalization in the eighteenth century as people, ideas (such as British portrait conventions), and things (such as the Chinese silks used to clothe such wealthy and fashionable women as these) moved throughout the world. Similar kinds of international cultural exchanges can be seen throughout the American Identities galleries.