Though considered to be part of a fairly young country, much of the aesthetic culture of America drew upon the traditional styles of those held by the British—most evident in portraiture. Employing the usage of intense shading and coloring to invoke drama, American painters were often seen borrowing a classical style of English painting, often times using subdued colors in the background to enrich the subject of the portrait. Though early British fine arts were seen with intricate curves and ornate spirals, American portraiture still shared the same amount of grandeur in their depiction of their subject. Most commonly seen in their portraits of presidents, early American portraiture had general motifs of heroism that could be coupled with elements of the natural world and most importantly, light and texture.
While entering the “America’s Presidents” exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, one can immediately see the visual similarities of the early presidential paintings. A vast majority of the backgrounds in the portraits show opaque colors of red and navy and smooth brushstrokes. In addition, presidents were depicted with strong facial expressions with almost no secondary objects present, despite having accessories highlighted with gold. Viewing this, one can not only assume the technical intensity of a painter of the colonial era, but also understand the underlying rhetoric of each portrait. The pre-dominant colors of either red or navy invoke a serious implication of strength and assertion as shown in Mather Brown’s Third President. This is furthered by the President’s visual expression that asserts physical power and superiority. In the case of a presidential portrait, it is clear that the painting is to advertise the president’s political importance, yet at the same time his personality. Such aspects can be taken into account in the artist’s inclusion of war medals, uniforms, symbols of freedom (eagles and flags) and evidence of affluence.
As American portraiture began to modernize, most specifically in the 21th-century, aspects such as style, pose, and the artist’s relationship to the subject became more prominent in the final product. In the example of Thu Nguyen’s The Valentine Dress, the subject of the painting defies accepted concepts of artistic rhetoric in the sense of color. The subject, a young little girl, is seen in her kitchen with spotlight-like coloration directly on her. Her kitchen, in contrast, is very detailed, yet dark almost implying a stage-like environment. This contrasts with presidential portraits that often left backgrounds fuzzy and ambiguous of its location.However, Nguyen pays the greatest attention at the core of the image, the girl’s heart-patterned dress. Because of the vibrant red hearts popping out of her white dress one can associate the happiness that accompanies youth with the overall image. However, the opposite can be intended not only because of the dark background but also because of what her pose suggests. Her rigid stance contrasts with her playful dress which may imply the unseen difficulties of the stereotypical, carefree life of a child. This may also be furthered if one considers the space within the portrait because of the suggested detachment of the girl and her environment.
It is in these instances that the evolution of American portraiture is distinctly different. Though the standard rhetorical meaning behind an artist’s decision (or unintentional choice) of color, medium, technique and symbol have universally stayed the same, we have, as consumers of art, collectively begun to relate subjects with creators—a type of relationship uncommon in the time of presidential portraits. In many ways, we have become more human—appreciating the relationship between artist and muse in these paintings and in many ways, we see ourselves in them. Though the debate between the intention of rhetoric through art seems unending, it can be said that art is created with intentions of some sort of communication whether to stir emotions through persuasion or not.