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Friday, 30 May 2014

Robert Feke (1705-1750) - American Colonial Painter


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Robert Feke, who's mysterious life has been the subject of innumerable conjectures, was probably born at Oyster Bay, Long Island. Although early documentation is scarce, several brief contemporary references and the evidence supplied by his pictures help to identify the places of his activity. His earliest dated work - and his most ambitious - The Family of Isaac Royal (Harvard University Law School) - places him in Boston, working under the influence of John Smibert, in 1741.

Robert Feke
Isaac Royal and His Family
1741
Oil on canvas



The Harvard University Law School possesses a group portrait (above) showing one man, three women, and a child, the back of which bears the following inscription: "Drawn for Mr. Isaac Royall whose Portrait is on the foreside Age 22 years 13th instant His lady in blue Aged 19 years 13th instant His sister Mary Palmer in [one word illegible] Aged 18 years 2nd of August His sister Penelope Royall in Green Aged 17 years 25 of April The [illegible] daughter Elizabeth Aged 8 months, 7th instant Finisht Sept. 15th, 1741 by Robert Feke." It is particularly significant to remember that this is the first clear indication we have that the painter ever existed.



The town records of Newport describe him as being of "Newport" when he married Eleanor Cozzens in 1742. A group of signed and dated works show that he was in Newport in 1745, in Philadelphia in 1746, in Boston in 1748, an back in Philadelphia in 1750.



Feke's  portraits display a sophistication in conception and a sensitivity in the handling of pigment that place them among the most competent works of the colonial period.



During his visit to Newport in 1744, the itinerant diarist  Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scotch physician domiciled in Annapolis, recorded his arrival in Newport under the date July 16, 1744. ". . . I dined at a tavern kept by one Nicolls at the sign of the White Horse, where I put up my horses, and in the afternoon Dr. Moffatt, an old acquaintance and schoolfellow of mine, led me a course through the town. He carried me to one Feake, a painter, the most extraordinary genius ever I knew, for he does pictures tolerably well by the force of genius, having never had any teaching. I saw a large table of the Judgment of Hercules, copied by him from a frontispiece of the Earl of Shaftsbury's, which I thought very well done. This man had exactly the phiz of a painter, having a long pale face, sharp nose, large eyes - with which he looked upon you steadfastly,- and long curled black hair, a delicate white hand, and long fingers. (C. Bridenbaugh [ed.], Gentleman's Progress, The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 1744, 1948).



The inquiry made by Joshua Francis Fisher in Dawson's Historical Magazine of November 1859 concerning the identity of Robert Feke brought forth a host of family traditions about the artist, including such tales as that he "left the house of his youth, and was several years absent on voyages abroad, in one of which he was taken prisoner and carried into Spain, where, in the solitude of his prison, he succeeded in procuring paints and brushes, and employed himself in rude paintings which, on his release, he sold and thus availed himself of the means of returning to his own country." There is a posthumous reference to Feke as a "mariner" in the marriage record of his daughter at Newport in October 1767, but this, as well as other family traditions, remains unsubstantiated.

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