Fremenemies at MFAH

Master frenemies: MFAH exhibit reveals the untold story of how two Americans influenced British art

MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Stuart - Joseph Brant
Photo courtesy of © The Trustees of the British Museum
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 West - Self-Portrait
Photo courtesy of © Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Copley - Self-Portrait
Photo courtesy of © National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Singleton - The Royal Academicians
Photo by John Hammond/© Royal Academy of Arts, London
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 West - Death of General Wolfe
Photo courtesy of © Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Northeast Peoples - Smoking-pipe
Photo courtesy of © The Trustees of the British Museum
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 West - Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye
Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Pratt - The American School
Photo by Geoffrey Clements/© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, N.Y.
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Titian - Venus and Adonis
Photo courtesy of © 2013 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 West - Venus Lamenting
Photo courtesy of © 2013 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Copley - Izards
Photo courtesy of © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Copley - Watson and the Shark
Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Art
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Stone - Interior of Leverian Museum
Photo courtesy of © The Trustees of the British Museum
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Taumi Gorget
Photo courtesy of © 2013 The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Copley - Head of a Negro
Photo courtesy of © Detroit Institute of Arts, U.S.A./The Bridgeman Art Library
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 Alcibar - De Espanol y Negra
Photo courtesy of © Denver Art Museum
MFAH American Adversaries September 2013 West - Death on the Pale Horse
Photo courtesy of © Detroit Institute of Arts, U.S.A./The Bridgeman Art Library

Passionate discourse about art turns enemies into friends and friends into enemies.

The latter is the story of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, two gifted 18th century American painters — you may call them frenemies — who influenced the trajectory of the British school of visual art.

The exhibition American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Jan. 20, 2014, amasses paintings, cultural curiosities and decorative arts to sketch how these two American-born artists came to be authorities in a world across the pond. Moreover, the collection portrays the true spirit of an era that's often thought of as insular and lacking global awareness.

In this audio photo essay, we encourage you to stop, look and listen as the entertaining Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American Painting and Sculpture, offers compelling commentary about what these beautiful objects are explicitly telling us — and what they are not.

Because there's always an untold story behind the true story of a work of art.

Gilbert Stuart, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), 1785, oil on canvas, The British Museum, London

Let's begin this artful journey with self-portraits by our protagonists.

Benjamin West — born in 1738 in Springfield, Pa., a rural area of Quaker heritage (though West wasn't a Quaker himself) — sketches a formal image that conveys his refined etiquette and high class echelon: The ultimate gentleman, genteel and well-mannered, sitting at his desk.

In his hand, West is holding a document that announces the founding of London's Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, of which West was one of the original founders and the institution's longest running president.

Look to the painting's top left: The Caesar-like bust is of a regal figure that's vilified in American history. Any guesses as to who he may be?

Benjamin West, Self-Portrait, 1793, oil on canvas, Society of the Dilettanti, London

Unlike West, John Singleton Copley didn't paint himself numerous times.

Copley, born in Boston, Mass., in 1738, embodies the archetypal "rags to riches" story, a self-taught character who rose through the ranks to become the most famous portraitist of the American colonies.

In 1769, Copley married Susanna Farnham Clarke, a wealthy heiress whose father was the merchant responsible for sourcing the tea that roused the storied Boston Tea Party. Copley, however, resolved to remain politically neutral. In fact, Copley painted portraits of men on both sides of the partisan spectrum, men such as John Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, James Warren, Paul Revere and George Augustus Eliott.

As compared to West's self-portrait, Copley refrains from adding any allusions to his societal status.

John Singleton Copley, Self-Portrait, 1780-1784, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation with matching funds from the Smithsonian Institution

Can you spot Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley in this large, formal portrait?

As the president of the Royal Academy beginning in 1792, West, wearing a black Napoleonic hat, is regally perched on a chair, an object of decorative arts that's still in existence.

Standing while holding a cane in his right hand, left hand stretched out as if having just finished a long discourse, is Copley.

On first look, it may appear as Henry Singleton's work expresses communal unity among the coterie of academicians, but on further study, scholars have determined that the painting also divulges the factionalism that existed within the walls of this serious institution.

Henry Singleton, The Royal Academicians in General Assembly, 1795, oil on canvas Royal Academy of Arts, London

Empires in the 18th century were lured by the possibility of expansion into the New World. The French advanced first, forging healthy relationships with the Indian tribes, enticed by their crafts and commerce. The British wanted a piece of the pie, but control wasn't going to come without a fierce fight.

British military commander General James Wolfe devised an intricate plan that would surprise French forces when they were at their most vulnerable.

In this painting, West romanticizes a scene of the historic battle that occurred on the fields of Quebec in 1759. Chronologically, West documents the combat through the death of Wolfe as he learns the news that his troupe had triumphed over the French infantry that was commanded by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

The large painting was an instant success in British circles. Contemporary history had never before been captured in such a grand scale.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1779, oil on canvas, Ickworth, National Trust, Suffolk

Among the cultural curiosities of Native-American provenance owned by Benjamin West, a dozen are on view as part of American Adversaries.

West was interested in authentically depicting his subjects; he had a passion for understanding colonial culture. This exotic world of lands and peoples an ocean away fascinated 18th century British collectors. Through art, West became an expert, in essence, morphing his colonial pedigree from what may be considered to be less-than-desirable to an asset that rendered his work riveting.

What other artists in London could accurately describe this material culture?

But more than a beautiful smoking paraphernalia, this artifact is an example of cultural diplomacy: The peace pipe.

North America, Northeast Peoples, possibly Siouan or Algonquian, Smoking Pipe, 1600–1750, soapstone, possibly silk and metal, The British Museum, London, ex-collection of Benjamin West

Had 18th century history turned out differently, this portrait would perhaps be well-known to American audiences. The Iroquois Confederacy, particularly the Mohawks, sided with the British. The outcome of the American Revolution sealed their fate.

This Benjamin West portrait, the only one of its kind, pairs Guy Johnson, the nephew of the most important diplomat of the American frontier, and his colleague, whose name translates to Captain David Hill. It's the only painting of a colonial influential with someone of the middle ground, a term used by scholars to describe a culture that isn't white or Indian.

Johnson's clothing also chronicles this fusion: A British military coat, quilted moccasins, a hat adorned with feathers and a trade blanket.

Benjamin West, Col. Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye (Capt. David Hill), 1776, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940

Some may think that artists do what they want, they express themselves freely, that they create on a whim, that they don't follow rules. That wasn't the case in 18th-century England.

There was a thorough, prescribed curriculum that prepared young hopefuls for a life in portraiture. That's what Matthew Pratt documents in this painting.

Let's examine the title, The American School. There was no such thing as an American school of art in the colonies. If an American wanted to learn how to paint, he or she would visit Benjamin West in London. Every American artist passed through West's home and studio.

West appears with a Quaker hat on the left and Pratt appears on the right in front of the canvass.

Essentially, through this self-portrait, Pratt is claiming that he's completed his academic training. 

Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Samuel P. Avery, 1897

In a quest to establish himself as a gentleman, connoisseur and taste maker, Benjamin West built an immense personal collection of about 7,000 objects, not counting his own.

West's London home, which today is a parking lot for the Royal Mail, served as an important destination for artists to study the works of great masters. West allowed emerging artists, including John Singleton Copley, into his home — as long as they had a proper letter of introduction.

West owned this Titian, an important acquisition that was remarkable in its day. Artists studied Titian's color palette in an attempt to decipher the recipes that rendered the Venetian master's unrivaled sumptuous hues.

Titian and Workshop, Venus and Adonis, c. 1554, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London

How does an 18th century artist begins to compose a painting?  What was the acceptable practice?

It was customary for painters to draw inspiration from old masters of the genre. As the famed saying goes, "Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal."

Can you see the resemblance between Benjamin West's Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis and Titian's Venus and Adonis as shown on the previous slide?

Take a good look.

West's version, which most likely would have hung next to Titian's, is a different moment in the story.

What West is essentially doing here, notes Neff, is claiming a spot in the lineage of a revered genius of yesteryear, as if West argues that he's the rightful heir of such tradition.

Benjamin West, Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis, 1786 (retouched 1819), oil on canvas Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Imagine what the scene in Boston circa 1775 may have been like.

In the midst of upheaval, Copley decides to leave his family behind and travels abroad to take the Grand Tour, a spin around Europe that young men of wealth would take en route to becoming educated, worldly gentlemen.

West helps Copley in arranging his voyage, even finds Copley a travel companion, the artist George Carter. But the two men hated each other, evident by Copley's correspondence to his wife and Carter's detailed diary, in which he states, "Thank God I am not married to him."

After parting ways, Copley continues part of his tour with Ralph Izard and Alice Delancey, who commissioned this exquisite portrait.

John Singleton Copley, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (Alice Delancey), 1775, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Edward Ingersoll Brown Fund

Jaws, Shark Week, 12 Days of Terror . . . the fascination with the predatory fish begins with this Copley painting of a shark attack.

When Watson and the Shark was displayed at the Royal Academy in London, Copley, overnight, was the talk of the town. He was extended an invitation to join as a member of the prestigious league of artists.

Watson and the Shark was seen as companion to West's The Death of General Wolfe. Not in theme, however, but in genre, size and scope, because this shark attack really happened.

Moreover, Copley's depiction made Brook Watson, who was bitten by the shark three times (like the account of Jonah and the Whale), a celebrity.

Listen to Neff tell the complete, fascinating story of Watson, who became known as the man with the wooden leg.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund

Copley's shark in Watson and the Shark may not look realistic to modern audiences, but for an 18th-century viewer who had not seen such a creature up close, this was as true to life as was available.

Some of the shark's anatomical features, however, are spot on. How would an 18th-century artist gain this knowledge?

Not far from Copley's London home was the Leverian Museum, whose miscellany of natural history and ethnographic specimens included shark jaws, shark teeth and artifacts made from shark. The museum no longer exists. Its contents were sold at auction in 1806.

Pay attention to the teeth in Copley's painting: The gaping mouth is accurate, but then Copley improvises with artistic license and adds gums and lips that resemble human traits.

Probably Sarah Stone, Interior of Leverian Museum, 1835, watercolor and/or colored inks on paper, The British Museum, London

This piece, although it may seem out of place with the motif of the exhibition, is included to suggest the kind of cultural environment in which Copley lived.

Eighteenth-century London is saturated with these curiosities, introduced to the public courtesy of Captain James Cook's voyages. From the docks to the streets to taverns to classy establishments, these artifacts were everywhere. Everyone, peasants and nobles, was collecting them.

The collar's parts — made from plant fiber, dog hair, mother of pearl, feathers and sharks teeth — would have been recognized by audiences, but Europeans wouldn't have understood their deeper meaning.

The animals represented symbolized a spiritual way of life.

Unknown maker, Taumi Gorget, 18th century, coir, plant fiber, dog hair, shark teeth, mother-of-pearl and feathers, Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

Records of Copley's estate listed this painting as Head of a Favorite Negro, which would indicate that Copley was friends with the model. Scholars surmise that the portrait is actually a study for the Black figure that appears in Copley's Watson and the Shark.

What's remarkable is how Copley uses white brushstrokes to add highlights in the forehead, cheeks, lips, teeth and the collar.

From a societal perspective, the picture represents one of the first occurrences in art in which characters from races that aren't white are not portrayed as a cultural stereotypes.

Rather, Copley — for the first time in a major painting — depicts his subject with humanity, dignity and understanding.

John Singleton Copley, Head of a Negro, 1777-78, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Gibbs-Williams Fund

In deconstructing the elements of Copley's Watson and the Shark, it is evident that issues of race begin to enter the realm of art.

This painting by Jose de Alcibar, a prominent Mexican artist, appears as part of American Adversaries to elucidate on matters of ethnicity in the 18th century, when a new genre that addressed exactly that emerged: Casta paintings.

The milieu of Casta — Spanish or Portuguese to describe people of mixed-races, as in caste system — attempted to codify something that was extremely fluid, the racial intermingling between the New World and Old World.

The title says it all: Mix a Spanish person with a Black person and out comes a Mulatto child.

Beyond miscegenation, Alcibar's work dialogues even further about the fusing of cultures through the activities and objects in the painting. Neff, in the audio, tells us more.

Attributed to Jose de Alcibar, 6. De Espanol y Negra. Mulato (6. From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto), c. 1760–70, oil on canvas, Denver Art Museum, collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer

By the time Benjamin West painted Death on the Pale Horse, West and Copley are no longer speaking to each other.

King George III commissioned West to devise a new artistic program for the Royal Chapel at Windsor Castle. The subject? Revealed religion. Given that British churches were not commissioning artwork of this kind, the request was an important one.

West decided to exhibit this painting at the Royal Academy, a gesture with which he intended to advertise his relationship with the royal court. But to West's dismay, King George III wasn't pleased with the finished work.

The apocalypse . . . not necessarily an uplifting subject. The king revoked the commission five years later.

But more than a commentary on a biblical theme, a painting such as this one would have been understood in the context of contemporary affairs.

This was an era of war. The public was accustomed to the horrors of war. 

Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, 1796, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, USA/Founders Society Purchase, R.H. Tannahill Foundation fund