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March 17, 2007

In simple period portraits, psychological depth

From: Boston Globe - Boston,MA,USA - Mar 17, 2007

By Ken Johnson, Globe Staff | March 17, 2007

PORTLAND, Maine -- In early 19th-century America, before there was photography, itinerant painters roamed the land, staying for weeks or months at a time in the homes of folks who could afford to have images of themselves and their children preserved for posterity.

One of the most successful of those artists was John Brewster Jr. , the subject of a magical exhibition of 39 paintings at the Portland Museum of Art. Born in Connecticut in 1766 to a prominent New England Puritan family, Brewster worked mostly in Maine and Massachusetts. And he was, as it happened, deaf. Hence the title of the show, "A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr."

Going by his paintings alone, you wouldn't know Brewster was deaf. Typical of Early American folk portraits, they are simple, relatively flat, and painted in muted colors. They depict grim-faced, unsmiling adults posing stiffly in their Sunday best, and pale, otherworldly children.

Unlike his contemporary, Ammi Phillips -- the greatest of all Early American itinerant artists -- Brewster was not an adventurous formalist. His figures tend to be centered -- or, in the cases of double portraits, symmetrically balanced -- and surrounding spaces are either empty or filled in with generalized room interiors or landscapes.

The flatness and simplicity of Brewster's paintings appeal to modern eyes raised on abstraction. But the main attraction is psychological. With their exactingly contoured features and round, slightly oversize eyes, Brewster's sitters exert a mysterious magnetism. The gazes they fix on a viewer seem ominously thoughtful, as though they know something that you don't but perhaps ought to.

Could it be that because he was deaf Brewster was particularly sensitive to the inscrutability of other people? For the show's organizer, Paul S. D'Ambrosio, chief curator at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown , N.Y., where the exhibition originated, being deaf was a defining fact about Brewster as an artist. D'Ambrosio writes that the historical contexts of Brewster's life encourage us to see him as "not only an artist who incidentally was deaf, but also and just as importantly as a Deaf [sic] artist who was both a product of his time and a rare exception to the historical norms."

Born before there were American schools for the deaf and before the advent of standardized sign language, Brewster communicated through gestures, pantomime, and some writing. Yet he was able to travel widely on his own, negotiate with customers, and develop a successful business. His family's social connections helped, but his enterprise was still remarkable.

In 1817, at age 51, Brewster became a member of the first class of the first school for the deaf in America: the Connecticut Asylum for the Instruction and Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. He spent three years there and then resumed his career and his residence in Maine, where he lived in the town of Buxton with one of his brothers. He died at 88 in 1854.

Exhibition wall texts argue that being deaf was an asset for Brewster as a painter: "Brewster's deafness may have improved his ability to paint portraits," reads one. "Unable to hear or speak, Brewster focused his energy on capturing minute details of facial expressions. He greatly emphasized his sitters' gazes, as eye contact was critical to communication among the Deaf."

The text observes further, "Studies prove that since Deaf people rely on visual cues for communication, they can differentiate subtle differences in facial expressions much better than hearing people."

Elsewhere, a wall text speculates that Brewster may have related especially well to children, who would have been fascinated and amused by his animated gestures and other curious ways of behaving.

The proposition that his paintings reveal a greater than normal visual acuity is not wholly convincing -- countless hearing artists have demonstrated extraordinary sensitivity to visual experience. But it is tempting to think that the mysteriousness of Brewster's portraits might express something he actually felt in the presence of other people: that his subjects lived in a world to which he had limited access. Of course, you don't have to be deaf to be mystified by what is going on in other people's heads; it's just that Brewster makes that experience unusually vivid.

The enigmatic mood is especially strong in the portraits of children. Most of them hold small, symbolic accoutrements: a piece of fruit, a toy horn, a book, a basket, a flower. One little girl in a white, ankle-length gown has one red slipper on while she dangles the other by its black lace from the fingers of one hand. Several have small birds perched on their fingers -- symbolizing the soul, which leaves the body after death, according to a wall label. Children often did die young, and at least one of Brewster's child portraits -- an image of his 5-year-old sister Sophia in front of a desolate landscape and a mournful, dusky red sunset -- is thought to have been painted posthumously.

Like his grown - ups, Brewster's children are solemn, but they have a touching sweetness about them. They appear to mean more to Brewster than the adults do, as though they were emissaries from some mystical never-never land that he would have loved to visit.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.