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A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr.
June 3 through September 10, 2006

Krieble Gallery

Visit the Calendar for related programs. Free family program words+pictures pairs three age levels of children's books about photography with related hands-on art projects.

The Florence Griswold Museum is pleased to host the travelling exhibition, A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr. in association with the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, where Brewster was enrolled in its first class in 1817. Organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, the exhibition features 40 portraits illustrating the artist's long and successful career as one of the country’s most prominent early painters. The exhibition is generously sponsored by Northeast Utilities and Bank of America.

BrewsterUnidentified Boy with Book, 1810

From the collection of the Florence Griswold Museum

BrewsterFrancis O. Watts with Bird, 1805
Brewster’s serene and ethereal portrait of Francis O. Watts is one of his most compelling portraits of a child. In this work—particularly Francis’ white dress and the peaceful landscape he inhabits—modern viewers often feel a palpable sense of the silence that was Brewster’s world.

The bird on the string symbolizes mortality because only after the child’s death could the bird go free, just like the child’s soul. Infant mortality was high during Brewster’s time and artists employed this image often in association with children.

From the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum


John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854), born a deaf-mute in rural Connecticut, was an itinerant portrait artist who created images of American life during the formative period of the nation, images of haunting beauty. He was a key formulator of a style of American folk portraiture that came to dominate rural New England, a striking adaptation of the English Grand Manner filtered through the works of Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl. The Grand Manner style entailed a romanticized view of the sitter, with rich colors and an exploration of detail in the sitter’s features, costume and setting. Working in a folk art style that emphasized simpler settings, broad, flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features, Brewster achieved a directness and intensity of vision rarely equaled.

Brewster lived at a time of beginnings: Americans were starting a new republic and a wealthy merchant class was forming; Deaf people came together and structured a society and language; and the limner’s art was popular as never before. Brewster’s life and artistic career was a complex intersection of four worlds – his Puritan family; the Federalist elite whose portraits he painted; the Deaf-World; and the art world – and these worlds combined to define who he was as an historical figure. Brewster was not an artist who incidentally was Deaf but rather a Deaf artist, one in a long tradition that owes many of its features and achievements to the fact that Deaf people are, as scholars have noted, visual people.

Beginning in the 1790s, Brewster traveled widely in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and eastern New York State in search of portrait commissions. Brewster’s extant portraits show his ability to produce delicate and sensitive likenesses in full-size or miniature, and in oil on canvas or ivory. He was especially successful in capturing the innocence of childhood in his signature full-length likenesses of young children.  In 1854 Brewster died at age eighty-eight, leaving an invaluable record of his era and a priceless artistic legacy.

Brewster’s Youth and Early Portraits, 1766-1800

Although little is known about Brewster’s childhood and youth, it seems likely that his early years were spent largely within a close circle of family and friends. He was born on May 30/31, 1766, the third child of Dr. John and Mary (Durkee) Brewster of Hampton, Connecticut. Being deaf-mute from birth and growing up long before the development of standardized signing systems for the deaf, Brewster probably could only communicate well with those closest to him. His mother died when he was seventeen; his father and new stepmother Ruth Avery of Brooklyn, Connecticut would have four more children.

The earliest known reference to Brewster appears in the diary of Reverend James Cogswell of nearby Windham, Connecticut, in 1790 and 1791. Cogsewll saw Brewster as having a “good Disposition & … ingenious mind” along with a “Genius for painting” but admitted that he could not understand the young man’s signs.

These entries indicate clearly that Brewster had learned to make his way in a hearing world through a variety of means: rudimentary signs probably known only to a close circle of family and friends; some ability to write; an inquisitive mind; an engaging personality, and a talent with the paintbrush.           

Brewster learned to paint from Reverend Joseph Steward, a friend and fellow pastor of Reverend Cogswell, about 1790. Steward was largely self-taught, although he saw and imitated the way in which Ralph Earl tailored the English Grand Manner to American taste. Where Earl adapted the regal poses and opulent surroundings of the English style by inserting realistic settings and more casual likenesses, Steward simplified Earl’s compositions to better suit his limited facility with the brush.

Brewster’s earliest known works resemble Earl’s portraits in scale, composition, costume and setting, while showing a strong sense of visual pattern through broad, flat areas of color. The overall effect, despite the simplicity of style, was an impressive likeness that ably communicated the prosperity, propriety, and education of the sitter.

Over the course of the next few years, however, Brewster moved well beyond the familiar, close-knit communities around Hampton. The artist’s younger brother, Dr. Royal Brewster, married and moved to Buxton, Maine in late 1795. John Brewster apparently moved to Maine at that time or shortly thereafter, and painted likenesses in and around Portland in between trips back to Connecticut. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Brewster was quickly developing a mature portrait style and seemed poised for a successful career as an itinerant artist.


BrewsterDr. John Brewster and Ruth Avery Brewster, ca. 1795-1800

Dr. Brewster, the artist’s father, was considered one of New England’s elite because he was descended from William Brewster, a Puritan leader, and because of his educated occupation as a physician.

The painting also shows signs of the English Grand Manner style that Brewster saw in the works of Joseph Steward and Ralph Earl: the outside view through a window, draperies, and books. These were objects used to display the wealth and status of the sitter.

From the collection of Old Sturbridge Village

BrewsterMother with Son (Lucy Knapp Mygatt and Son, George), 1799

In his portraits of Comfort Starr Mygatt (1763-1823), his wife Lucy (Knapp) Mygatt (1766-1804), and their children Lucy (1794-1855) and George (1797-1888), Brewster lavished attention on his subjects, painting his first known full-length portraits since 1795. Brewster may have viewed this as an important commission in obtaining more business in Danbury. It may also be that Brewster’s account at Mygatt’s store, documented at the equivalent of $430, required such large pictures to settle at least in part.

In the Mygatt portraits Brewster achieves, for the first time, the penetrating grasp of personality, subtly muted palette designed to highlight flesh tones, superb draftsmanship, and engaging gaze that characterize his best work. He also imbues these likenesses with the serenity, ethereal quality, and palpable sense of silence that modern viewers associate with Brewster and that some scholars have attributed to his deafness.

From the collection of the Palmer Museum of Art of the Pennsylvania State University



James Prince and Son, William Henry, 1801

James Prince was a wealthy merchant from the shipping center of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Brewster included many objects that establish Prince as a wealthy gentleman. The curtains and floor treatment were expensive luxuries in Prince’s day. The bookcase, books, desk and writing utensil suggest learning and literacy, something the common person lacked in this period. In other portraits of this time there was usually a window with a view. The replacement of the window with the bookcase suggests that education and books were an alternative window to the world. William Henry shows his entry into the adult world by holding a letter.

From the collection of the Historical Society of Old Newbury



Expanding Horizons, 1800-1817

In the early years of the nineteenth century Brewster artistic career flourished with the help of several important family commissions in Maine and Massachusetts, most notably the Cutts and Prince families. These years also marked the development of a signature style of painting children in a full-length format, with white garments and large expressive eyes projecting an air of angelic innocence. In these pictures of children, one sees the palpable rapport that must have existed between Brewster and his young sitters. This rapport may have been easier to grow between himself and his young sitters who would have been captivated by his animated gestures and pantomime. These paintings show just one of the ways in which Brewster’s deafness affected his painting.

Brewster’s deafness may also have shaped his mature portrait style, which centers on his emphasis on the face of his sitters, particularly the gaze. He managed to achieve a penetrating grasp of personality in likenesses that engage the viewer directly. Brewster combined a muted palette that highlights flesh tones with excellent draftsmanship to draw attention to the eyes of his sitters. The importance of direct eye contact to a Deaf person cannot be overstated. Modern viewers even a palpable sense of silence in Brewster’s serene and ethereal paintings.

In 1805 Brewster’s brother, Dr. Royal Brewster, completed construction of his Federal style house in Buxton, Maine. John Brewster moved in and lived there with his brother’s family for the rest of his life. At about this same time Brewster began signing and dating his paintings with greater frequency, and also moved away from the large-format, Grand Manner style of his earlier years. He developed an effective half-length format that was no doubt less expensive than the full-length ones, yet also more intimate, as it allowed Brewster to focus more attention on the faces of his sitters. Brewster worked in this style until 1817, when a unique educational opportunity presented itself in his home state of Connecticut, a prospect that would ensure his presence at the birth of Deaf culture and conscious in America.

BrewsterUnidentified Woman in a Landscape, ca. 1805

From the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum


John Brewster Jr. and the Deaf World

Brewster’s deafness profoundly affected his life and work. At the time of Brewster’s birth and childhood, there were neither formal deaf education programs nor a national Deaf community with which to be involved. It was not until Brewster’s adult years that the first school for the deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut. With the founding of this school in 1817, Deaf culture in America emerged with the creation of American Sign Language (ASL). While there were small enclaves of the Deaf such as on Martha’s Vineyard, these groups would not have met the Brewster family. Therefore, his hearing family likely created their own home signs to communicate with and instruct Brewster.

Home signs are improvised gestures, pantomime and signs that were intelligible only to those in the household. Many deaf children and families created home signs to bridge communication barriers before ASL. Later, families who subscribed to the oral approach of education, where ASL is banned and entire effort is placed on trying to teach the child to speak, also developed home signs. Brewster probably communicated with the rest of the world through pantomime and a small amount of writing. It is astounding then that Brewster traveled great distances, sometimes in areas that were unfamiliar, negotiated prices, decided poses and artistic ideas with his sitters, as well as living among his sitters of weeks or months at a time. To make this situation easier in his early career Brewster relied on family connections to secure many sitters.

Paradoxically, it seems likely that Brewster’s deafness may have improved his ability to paint portraits. Unable to hear and speak, Brewster focused his energy and ability to capture minute differences in facial expression. He also greatly emphasized the gaze of his sitters, as eye contact was such a critical part of communication among the Deaf. Scientific studies have proven that since Deaf people rely on visual cues for communication can differentiate subtle differences in facial expressions much better than hearing people.

In his adulthood, after attending the Connecticut Asylum for the Instruction and education of Deaf and Dumb Persons, Brewster had to choose between remaining in a Deaf community or rejoining the hearing world. He ultimately went back to his former life. This choice between hearing and Deaf worlds is something Deaf people struggle with even today. Many Deaf people finding a Deaf community and friends immediately feel a sense of kinship and friendship, which they describe as coming home. The school in Hartford laid the foundation for this setting. Today, many Deaf children are mainstreamed into public schools or are given cochlear implants, which places them more firmly within the hearing world. How these children find their identity in many cases mirrors Brewster’s own search.


BrewsterMoses Quinby, ca. 1810-1815

Moses Quinby was a financially successful lawyer from Stroudwater, Maine. He was born in 1786 and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1806. It is not known how he came to know of Brewster’s work, but he was likely painted at a time when Brewster was traveling in Maine. In the years just prior to attending the Connecticut Asylum, Brewster sought clients further afield than before as his artistic career flourished.

From the collection of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Brewster Attends The Connecticut Asylum, 1817-1820

In 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened and changed Brewster’s life. The school was founded by Mason Cogswell, a patron of Ralph Earl and family friend of the Brewsters, whose young daughter Alice become deaf at the age of two after a bout with spotted fever. Cogswell’s neighbor Thomas Gallaudet became inspired by Alice and the two men decided to start the first American school for the deaf. After raising funds, the founders of the school sent Gallaudet to England to learn how to instruct deaf people. Gallaudet encountered the French Abbe Sicard who was in England with his deaf student Laurent Clerc spreading his education technique which utilized sign language. Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to come to America to begin a school in Connecticut. The school they founded was based on the idea that sign language was the Deaf’s natural language and through this language, the students could be taught academics and religion. Thus the first American school for the Deaf began creating an American Sign Language, which drew upon French Sign Language, sign language from various Deaf enclaves such as the one on Martha’s Vineyard, home signs, and signs that grew out of the school’s context.

Brewster was in the first class that attended the school and witnessed the birth of American Sign Language (ASL). At fifty-one he was by far the oldest student in the seven member class, whose average age was nineteen. Brewster must have possessed a keen desire to learn and better himself to give up his economic independence and start school with pupils much younger than himself. It must have been exciting for him to meet with individuals who were like him and communicated in the same manner.

Brewster’s Legacy, 1820-1854

After leaving the school, Brewster had a decision to make, whether to leave behind this new Deaf community and rejoin the hearing world or to embrace the new Deaf world. Brewster ultimately decided to live amongst the hearing. His choice probably had a lot to do with his age; Brewster had already made his way in the hearing world and was successful in his trade. He was extremely close to his hearing family, especially his brother Dr. Royal Brewster and his family with whom John Brewster Jr. lived most of his life.

Brewster’s stay at the school changed his art. He left the Connecticut Asylum in 1820, and returned to his artistic career with a renewed vigor. His paintings from the 1820s and early 1830s show more depth in characterization, increased shading that reflected faces that were more somber, as well being half-length and using the popular Empire-style amber colored tones. Brewster painted many portraits in this style at least until 1834, the date of his last known portrait. Little is known of his later years but it is likely that he gave up traveling and painting and lived quietly in Buxton until his death in 1854.

Brewster was one of the greatest folk painters in American history as one of the key figures in the Connecticut style of American Folk Portraiture. In addition, Brewster’s paintings serve as a key part of Maine history. Brewster was the most prolific painter of the Maine elite, documenting through the portraits details of the life of Maine’s federal elite. Though Brewster chose to live among the hearing, his deafness was inextricably linked and affected his art and thus Brewster is one of the many great Deaf painters. Above all, the courage, determination and strength that Brewster demonstrated in overcoming the myriad of communication challenges he faced in creating his art leaves a powerful legacy that both hearing and Deaf alike can strive to follow.    


BrewsterReverend Daniel Marrett, 1831

Many of Brewster’s portraits from his late career show great depth and strength of characterization, perhaps the result of the artist’s advancing years. He communicates the seriousness of Reverend Marrett’s religious convictions in his furrowed brow and chiseled features, as well as in the paper held in his hand quoting Amos 4:12, “Prepare to meet thy God.” Brewster’s last known signed portrait dates to just three years later, and little is known of the final 20 years of his life.

From the collection of Historic New England/SPNEA