ROBERT FEKEcirca 1705-1751
Robert Feke was most likely the best American-born portrait painter in the colonies. The artist appears to have been born at Oyster Bay, Long Island, son of a Baptist minister of English descent. His great-grandfather, also named Robert Feke, came to the Massachusetts Bay around 1630 with Governor John Winthrop. According to family marriage records, the elder Feke was employed as a “mariner.” As a painter Feke was self-taught and began by painting portraits of his family. The earliest extant portrait, circa 1732, is of a child, Levinah Cock (nicknamed “Phiany”), who may have been a relative of the painter. Feke’s first dated work is a large group portrait of Isaac Royal and His Family, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, now at Harvard University, completed by 1741. Feke’s early works show that he was heavily influenced by John Smibert, whose paintings he may have seen in Newport or in Boston. Feke was active in Boston as a portraitist by 1741. In 1742 Feke married Eleanor Cozzens of Newport. Feke painted a portrait of the Reverend John Callender, of the First Baptist Church, who performed the ceremony, dated 1745. The couple probably lived in a large house on Griffin (now Truro) Street that the bride’s father owned. The artist lived in Newport until 1751, during the height of the “triangle trade” in molasses, rum, and slaves which made Newport one of the most prosperous cities in the colonies. Feke painted portraits in Philadelphia in 1740, 1746 and 1750, and in Boston in 1741 and 1748. He also made several journeys abroad, on one of which, according to family legend, he was taken prisoner and brought to Spain, where he occupied himself by making rudimentary paintings that he sold to purchase his passage home upon his release. By 1748 Feke had achieved his own mature style which concentrated on decorative elegance and character in muted neo-classical settings and showed mastery of the effects of light. His subjects were the well-to-do merchants, professionals, clergy, colonial officials, and their wives. It has been said of Feke that he was “the first native-born artist who approached the sophistication of Europe while still retaining the strength and integrity inherited from his artistic ancestors, the primitive limners of America.” About sixty of Feke’s portraits have been found. Only twelve of these are signed or dated. A joint exhibition of Feke’s works was organized in 1946 by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Heckscher Art Museum, Long Island; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.