Sometimes I feel I am just wasting my time studying the little known American portrait artists of the 19th century. My vow to restore those artists to their proper place in memory feels like a burden. Then along comes a gratifying artwork like George Gordon, Lord Byron by Arthur Armstrong (1798-1851).
In 1845, in his studio was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s cultural center, Mechanics Institute Hall, Arthur Armstrong transformed a print of a romantic British portrait, painted in 1813 by Richard Westall (1765-1836), into a quintessentially American work. In the linear tradition of the America’s self-taught artists, Armstrong straightened the dream-like pose into a commanding stance. With the American penchant for plain over fancy, he omitted lace and brooch. In the American manner, he eschewed complexity to create a clear conceptualization of the poet. Armstrong’s portrait of Lord Byron lacks the graceful elegance of the English painting but it holds a timeless power. Much of Westfall’s other work today appears annoyingly sweet and old-fashioned while Armstrong’s Byron looks modern and contemporary. Such a painting reminds me why some nearly forgotten American portrait artists need to be remembered. I am glad the owner contacted me. He wishes to sell the simultaneously classic and contemporary American portrait.
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