The Arts in the 18th-century Atlantic World

   Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA

Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

Artists Included:
Art of the Spanish Americas

Between 1700 and 1800, thousands of trading ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions. Carrying raw materials and finished products, free and enslaved people, and word of new discoveries and scientific advances, these ships circulated a range of ideas and images and linked cities and communities across Britain, Europe, Africa, and the Americas into a vast, interconnected culture. This gallery brings together paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts to explore the intersection between the arts and this larger web of circulation and exchange.

Many of the works on display here make use of forms, subjects, and symbols derived from the ancient world. Disseminated through illustrations of archaeological discoveries, this neoclassical vocabulary constituted the lingua franca of the interconnected Atlantic. Classical references were as common in portraits from colonial Boston as they were in works painted in Cuzco, the artistic capital of the Andes. In this age of expansive trade, works of art and domestic objects were regularly sent across the ocean. Charles Willson Peale painted his portrait of George Washington in Philadelphia, then promptly crated and shipped it off to Paris, where it remained for much of its history. John Singleton Copley’s portraits of the Boylston family, replete with Asian silks and Cuban mahogany, celebrate the new world of exotic commodities that overseas trade had opened up.

Artists’ materials, tools, and knowledge of art making techniques also moved around the Atlantic. Many of the works in this gallery are products of these new methods and materials. The case in the center of the room highlights two extraordinary examples: a wampum wrist ornament, fabricated in New England with the help of steel drills imported from Europe; and a ceramic punch bowl, crafted in Britain and based on Asian prototypes.

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