The Arts in the 18th-Century Atlantic World
Between 1700 and 1800, thousands of trading ships crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean. 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, and North and South America into a vast, interconnected culture. This gallery brings together paintings, works on paper, and pieces of decorative art to explore the intersection between the arts and this larger web of circulation and exchange.
Eighteenth-century artists mined the past for inspiration, and 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 in elaborate folios like Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, 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 paintings acquired by collectors on the Grand Tour, like Vanvitelli’s view of the Colosseum.
In an age of expansive trade, works of art and domestic objects were regularly sent across the ocean. Charles Willson Peale painted his standing portrait of George Washington in Philadelphia, then promptly crated and shipped it off to Paris, where it remained for much of its history. Filled with Asian silks and Cuban mahogany, John Singleton Copley’s portraits of the Boylston family celebrate the new world of exotic commodities that overseas trade had opened up.
Artist’s 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.