JOSEPH BADGER 1708-1765
Portrait of Mr. Daniel Rea, c. 1757
Oil on canvas, 49 X 59" (124.46 x 99.06 cm.)
Museum purchase, 947-0-101
This portrait by Joseph Badger is one of a pair of paintings that unassumingly marks a turning point in American painting, one not particularly beneficial to the artist. Painted when Badger was forty-nine, the portrait serves as a pendant to one of Reds wife painted at the same time by John Singleton Copley. The execution of pendant portraits by different artists is unusual but, in this case, functions on two levels: in practical terms to show a man proudly presenting his family to the viewer, and on an historical level to represent the moment of transition from the older Badger to Copley, the young genius who, only nineteen years of age in 1757, dominated American portraiture in the 1760s and early 1770s.
Badger rose to prominence following the retirement in 1746 of James Smibert, the most accomplished portraitist in Boston. Largely self-taught, Badger forged a career as an artist by painting houses, signs, and heraldic devices as well as portraits that captured a facial likeness of the sitter but relied heavily on European conventions for representation of the human figure. Portrait of Mr. Daniel Rea is typical of Badger's conservative style: dark in tone and of predominantly cool colors, it shows Rea standing before a mountainous landscape varied only by a few feathery trees. Rea stands out from the background by virtue of the sky, which brightens to form an aura around him and sets off the bold, undulating contour of his left sleeve. Looking at the viewer, as Badger's sitters often did, Reds rigid stance emphasizes the presentational gesture of his left hand. Found in many English portraits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this gesture is often used as a rhetorical device or to direct the viewer to symbols of the sitter's authority-scholarly materials, military accessories, or, as in this case, a wife and child represented in a portrait that would hang next to it. Such austere formality could also be found in the work of Badger's contemporaries Robert Feke and Joseph Blackburn, who, like Badger, filled the void left by Smibert but were effectively surpassed by Copley's transformation of Boston portrait painting between the late 1750s and his departure for England in 1774. Relinquishing the sober aspects of his predecessors, Copley exploited the richness of fabric and varieties of texture to animate the surface of his pictures, replacing Badger's upright postures with more relaxed poses, and his oratorical gestures with expressions that alluded less to the material world than to the interior realm of the spirit.
Badger's association with Daniel Rea, a Boston tailor, can be dated to June 22, 1752, when an entry in Rea's surviving record books credits the artist with painting "a Pitcher" for Rea in payment for "a Hatt and sundrys." Little such evidence of Badger's activity has been uncovered, and because he did not sign any of his pictures, the reconstruction of his oeuvre has depended on attributions made by the artist's few scholars. The portrait of Mrs. Rea was once included among his work, but scientific examination has supported its attribution to Copley. As such, the two portraits provide a telling representation of the generational and stylistic shift that precipitated the success of Copley and, with it, the first great age of American art.