The Freake Limner (American Colonial Era Painter, active 1670-c 1680) Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary 1674, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
In the 17th-century the North American colonies enjoyed neither the wealth nor the leisure to cultivate the fine arts extensively. Colonial artisans working in pewter, silver, glass, or textiles closely followed European models. The 17th-century limners, generally unknown by name, turned out naive but often charming portraits in the Elizabethan style, the Dutch baroque style, or the English baroque court style, depending upon the European background of both artist and patron.
The artist depicted Elizabeth Feake, in a way that highlights her conservative wealth—and thus her favorable position within the eye’s of God—and her religious moderateness. Elizabeth wears unexpectedly fine attire. A small amount of blond hair is visible underneath her white lace hood. That hood brings visual attention to the white collar and the striking white lace that covers most of the bodice of her silver taffeta dress. Underneath her skirt is a striking red-orange velvet underskirt that is embroidered with a gold, lace-like pattern. She wears a white blouse that features lace cuffs on the sleeves, while red and black bows provide a visual splash of color and contrast against an otherwise somewhat achromatic ensemble. Elizabeth’s portrait is filled with baubles that speak to their affluence and to the family’s growth. She wears a triple-stranded string of pearls about her neck, a gold ring on her finger and a four-stranded garnet bracelet can be seen on her left thumb and wrist. She sits on a fashionable chair, and a Turkey-work rug can be seen resting on the back of the chair. Although Elizabeth currently holds her infant Mary, radiograph x-ray photography shows that she originally held a fan. That the painting has been modified—fan out, new baby who wears a fashionable dress in—demonstrates the relatively extravagant cost of having a portrait commissioned in the seventeenth century. It was more practical to have your daughter painted into an old portrait than to pay for a new one.
The artist who painted this portrait is unknown. The artist is thus known as the Freake(-Gibbs) Limner and is considered one of the most skilled portraitists of the seventeenth-century colonies, possessing an exceptional sense of design and an admirable feel for color. Probably trained in provincial England, the Freake-Gibbs painter worked in a typically English flat style derived from Elizabethan art, which emphasized color and pattern. As was customary for portraits at the time, the children appear like adults in pose and manner, even the baby here, Mary.
Virginia Professor Susan M. Llewellyn tells us about the motivations of John Freake to have his portrait and those of his family painted. In the mid-1670s, two prominent Bostonian merchants commissioned portraits of themselves. One of them, John Freake, had his completed in Boston in a manner that echoed the Elizabethan English Native School. The other, Samuel Shrimpton, traveled to London to have himself portrayed in the English Baroque style. There were political, economic, religious, familial, and personal factors impacting their different self-fashioning choices. Completed within one year of each other, these two works provide a visual portrayal of Boston as a community in transition between its Puritan past and the secularized society of its future. The story begins as so many tales do: once upon a time, there were two men. Both were English citizens, both were merchants, both lived in Boston, and both were very, very successful. In fact, they were two of the wealthiest men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony They knew each other. They even invested in some of the same ships. That, however, is where their similarities end and the story begins. In the mid-1670s, within a single year, these two prominent, wealthy Boston merchants decided to have their portraits painted. One of them, Mr. John Freake, chose to have his completed in Boston, in a style that echoed Elizabethan English Renaissance art. The other, Mr. Samuel Shrimpton, traveled to London where he elected to be represented in an English Baroque manner. Noted art historian Wayne Cravens asserted that the style of early American portraits was an expression of their society and culture. Yet these two men, seemingly from the same socio-economic community commissioned very different portraits. While most art historians writing on seventeenth- century colonial portraiture generally focus on society level factors to explain popular modes of painting. Such a decision carried considerable weight in the colonial era, for, as English portrait painter Jonathan Richardson wrote in his 1715 treatise entitled, An Essay on the Theory of Painting, "To sit for one's Picture is to have an Abstract of one's Life written, and published, and ourselves thus consign'd over to Honour or Infamy."