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The Colonial Period and Early Years of the Republic

The history of the German contribution to the American cultural heritage begins with those often-anonymous German artisans who in the late 1600's came from the Rhineland regions to settle in the North American colonies.  They originated the Pennsylvania Dutch art, one of the earliest and most important branches of American folk art.  However, since most of them had come to America as members of a religious sect in search of spiritual freedom, they worked almost exclusively in their tightly knit religious communities.  Best known of these early Pennsylvania German artists is Valentin Haidt (1700-1780).  A professional painter, born in Berlin, Haidt immigrated to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1754 to live with other members of the Moravian Brotherhood.  Besides portraying members of their religious community, Haidt also decorated their churches with biblical scenes, painted in the typical manner of the late German Baroque style.  Consequently his paintings like the art of the numerous other Pennsylvania German artists and artisans showed little development, but remained a well-preserved statement of their collective European heritage.  Other than expressing the exuberant joy and gratitude for the great blessing they had found in their new, very fertile homeland, their art did not yet reflect much of America nor differ noticeably from the contemporary European folk-art.

It was only with the arrival of Justus Engelhardt Kühn (?-1717) and Jeremias Theus (circa 1719-1774) who plied their craft as individual entrepreneurs in a non-German dominated society that a distinct influence of the American environment can be detected.

These two artists' manner of painting was that of the internationally accepted late Baroque style.  Kühn settled in Annapolis, Maryland sometime before 1708 and Theus in Charleston, South Carolina in 1739.  Both worked as itinerant "Limners" who advertised their work in the local newspaper and roamed the region in pursuit of their work.  Although they primarily painted portraits, they also did some landscapes or painted coats of arms, coaches and signs.  To judge from the many existing portraits, especially by Theus, these artists were not lacking for commissions since they seemed to have painted nearly everyone who belonged to upper society in these two colonies.  Both painters showed no genius of their own, but they knew their profession sufficiently well to adequately interpret the current period style.  Their works are among the earliest portraits made in America which show a projection of plastic forms, a rhythmic development of lines, a deft use of the effect of light and shade and good colorist qualities.  In short, they were among the first to bring the craft of painting to America.  Significantly, several of the portraits painted by Theus were later mistaken for early John Singleton Copleys.

Of course, far more influential to the American development was the British version of the Baroque portrait, which was brought to the North American colonies by some truly talented painters.  But the kinship to the central European version as practiced by Kühn and Theus was extremely close.  The founder of the great London portrait school, Godfrey Kneller was a German who had trained in Flanders.  Kneller's formula of showing the sitter in an upright pose, draped in garments of sweeping decorative outlines lived on in America in the paintings of such accomplished artists as Blackburn, Smibert and Bridges.  In addition, Kneller painted a number of prominent Americans during their sojourn in London and exerted an influence on American painting through widely circulated prints that were made from his paintings.

In pragmatic America, portrait painting remained the best bread-and-butter work for most of the German immigrant artists, even beyond the advent of photography.  But those artists with greater skills and ambitions, who were stimulated by the bustling, dynamic life style of the American cities with their potpourri population, turned also to genre painting.  Their more sophisticated compositions helped to free American art from provincialism and move it into the mainstream of Western art.

John Lewis Krimmel (1789-1821), an immigrant from the southern German region of Württemberg, became the first painter of specifically American genre scenes.  In the typical mode current in Germany during the first decades of the 19th century, Krimmel merged elements of Neoclassicism with German Romanticism and applied this style to the American scene.  His work shows an above average talent and a meticulous attention given to every detail, raising the possibility that he had trained as a miniature painter.  He recorded gatherings and events that he had witnessed in Philadelphia during the period 1810-1819.  In these pictures, Krimmel captured the spirit of the new republic with exceptional charm and elan and helped to translate the political and spiritual freedom of the young United States into a movement towards artistic independence.  Krimmel's paintings were of small size, merely cabinet pieces, and his painting style was of almost miniature like finesse.  Still, his influence on the American development was considerable.  Thanks to engravings, especially those made by the excellent Philadelphia engraver Alexander Lawson (1737-1846), the design of Krimmel's paintings became well known and had an obvious impact on the following generation of American genre painters.  There is convincing evidence that Krimmel's compositions influenced such eminent American painters as Sidney Mount and Caleb Bingham.

The looks and ways of the black segment of the American population fascinated Krimmel and several other German painters.  Krimmel loved to include in his compositions a black fiddler or a small "servant girl" showing them as an integral part of the American scene.  Christian Mayr (1805-1851), who worked for some time in the Southern States before ending up in New York, devoted a whole painting to the theme of black people's gregariousness and their love for music and dance - Kitcbenball in White Sulphur Springs (1833).  August Krimmel (1813-?) sketchbook affords poignant glimpses of Afro-American faces that he had observed in the streets of New York.

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