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Freake painter

(c. 1670—1680)

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Painter. Known solely as a portraitist, North America's first major artist remains anonymous. Active in Boston during the 1670s, he takes his name from a pair of portraits depicting Mr. and Mrs. John Freake (Worcester [Massachusetts] Art Museum, about 1671; reworked about 1674). Trained in England or by someone familiar with Elizabethan art forms, the artist balances simple design, shallow space, and delicate drawing with linear elegance, rich color accents, and luxuriant embellishments. His masterpiece, the portrait of Elizabeth Freake with her baby, tenderly and respectfully evokes the sitter's dignified presence and maternal affection. Although scholars disagree about attributions, altogether as many as eight or nine extant portraits from the 1670s may be the work of the Freake Painter or his shop. All depict sitters at slightly less than life size in oil on canvas. Representing the most sophisticated artistic expression known in the colonies during the seventeenth century, they demonstrate the artist's uncommon sensitivity to design and color, as well as his training in an established decorative style that was by then old-fashioned in England. In their attention to economic and social status, the Freake portraits demonstrate that from the beginning, American portraiture incorporated goals other than capturing likeness. Prosperous John Freake represents the emerging mercantile class, eager to differentiate himself from an older generation's austere Puritanism. His ambition to be recognized as a gentleman is evident in his choices of clothing and hairstyle. Although the air of reserve and decorum that characterizes both Freakes testifies to their distaste for ostentation, the couple lays claim to the finest material goods available, as is evident especially in the wife's representation. Her jewelry, laces, and sumptuous apparel fabrics, her baby's ornamental attire, her expensive chair covered with colorful turkey-work upholstery, and the curtain pulled back to one side bespeak a taste for sensory pleasures and the financial power to import them. The artist is alternatively known as the Freake Limner. Scholars have suggested that he might be identified with Samuel Clement (1635–c. 1678), known to have been working in Boston during the period of the Freake Painter's activity. Clement was the son of an artist who arrived in Massachusetts in 1635, after training in England.

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