For as long as art historians have been writing about painting in the early South, it's been common to think of the region's artists as relatively independent and even isolated figures.
Many show up in the records as episodic visitors from Europe or other parts of the country, while others traveled from client to client and such centers of affluence as Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. And this deceptively itinerant pattern is reflected in a wealth of studies that depict them as individual, largely unconnected talents.
In a revealing new book and new landmark exhibit, however, Colonial Williamsburg curator Carolyn J. Weekley combines a lifetime of scholarship with years of new research to show that these artists were often intimately linked to one another through a previously undetected web of shared influences, contacts and interests.
In some cases these ties are so extensive that they circle back on themselves, with former students going on to develop in new ways — then reshaping the work of the artists who had previously been their models.
"None of them really worked in the sort of vacuum we sometimes previously imagined," says Weekley, whose book and exhibit were funded by The Grainger Foundation, a longtime Colonial Williamsburg donor.
"There were all sorts of connections and relationships between these painters, and when you look at them closely, it can start to be a real tangle."
60 years of art
Spanning the years from 1730 to 1790, "Painters and Painting in the Early American South" brings together more than 80 works, including 40 from such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Virginia Historical Society.
Among many other lenders are numerous smaller institutions celebrated for their early Southern paintings, including the College of William and Mary's Muscarelle Museum of Art and both the Gibbes Museum of Art and Charleston Museum in South Carolina.
One of the great treasures is Charles Willson Peale's 1772 portrait of George Washington. It's a canvas from Washington and Lee University that shows the future Continental Army commander in the militia uniform he wore some 15 years earlier during the French and Indian War.
Hanging across from this rarely lent image is Peale's iconic portrait of 1779, a monumental likeness of the victor of the battles of Trenton and Princeton that has long been an anchor of the Williamsburg collection.
"Most of us are familiar with this heroic portrait," Weekley says.
"But this other image shows Washington as a young man. He commissioned it for himself. He commented on it in his diary. It's really a magnificent painting — and here it helps us show Peale's development and range."
All but a few of the more than two dozen artists showcased in the exhibit are represented by multiple paintings, and some — such as Swiss-born South Carolina artist Jeremiah Theus — can be studied through works spanning many years of their careers.
Like many other artists in America, Theus often depicted his clients in the latest English taste by incorporating details of costume and background from contemporary prints, including the pose, dress and emblematic flower seen in his circa 1755-63 portrait of Mrs. Charles Lowndes and the elaborately decorated waistcoat and coat flaunted by Col. Barnard Elliott Jr. in another canvas.
The artist used similar sources in his 1757 portrait of Mrs. Peter Manigault, too. But he also demonstrates exceptional care and skill in rendering the fabric of her fashionable dress, almost certainly because her husband wanted a painting that could serve as a companion to his own portrait by famed London court painter Allan Ramsay.
"It's an extraordinary painting," Weekley says, studying the large, three-quarter-length image.
"And all the care and attention to detail you see was because of what it was being asked to hang next to."
Perhaps even stronger than these influences from England, however, was the impact of other artists working in the South, many of whom were connected to one another as teachers, followers and rivals.
Few talents demonstrate the significance of these links more than John Hesselius, a Philadelphia-born painter whose clients included many of the most prominent families of Virginia and Maryland.
Trained first by his father, Hesselius soon fell under the influence of New Englander Robert Feke, with whom he may have traveled and worked when Feke came to Virginia to paint William and Elizabeth Nelson of Yorktown in 1749-51.
He later discarded Feke's Baroque manner for the newer, more fashionable Rococo style of John Wollaston Jr., a studio-trained Englishman who found great success in Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, where he painted the future Mrs. George Washington and more than 100 other portraits.
Hesselius' extraordinary ability to depict fabrics springs from this influence, as does a noticeably more 3-dimensional approach and a more polished handling of mass, light and shadow, Weekley says.
But later in his career he changed again, embracing the still-more realistic neo-classical approach championed by former pupil Charles Willson Peale after his return from two years of study with the great American expatriate painter Benjamin West in London.
"These paintings are noticeably different. They're more about character and faces than formula and fabric," Weekley says.
"What it shows you is that people were making informed choices about who was painting their portraits, and that these artists were strongly influenced by one another as they competed to be chosen."
Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment
What to go?
"Painters and Painting in the Early American South"
Where: Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
When: Through Sept. 7, 2014
Cost: $9.95 adults, $4.95 children 6-12
Info: 757-220-7693; http://www.history.org/museums
Online: Go to dailypress.com/southernpainting to see a gallery of images from the show.