Saturday, September 28, 2019

Dunlap, painter and playwright

‘Glenn my Landlord comes to tell me that he will have his two daughters painted in Oil, the Girls so preferring, and I am to do them at $25 each. This restores me again.’ This is from the diary of William Dunlap, who died 180 years ago today. He was a pioneer playwright and theatrical manager in New York City until bankruptcy - money was a chronic concern - forced him into painting society portraits for a living. His main claim to fame is an encyclopaedic history he wrote on the arts, but his diary is also considered an important primary source of information on American society and culture during the first half century of the Republic.

Dunlap was born in 1766 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the son of an army officer. He left school at the age of 12 when an injury left him blind in the right eye, but he soon developed an interest in drawing and began copying prints and executing portraits in pastel. Aged 16 he began painting portraits in oil, and indeed painted one of George Washington which is now owned by the US Senate. Dunlap was then sent to London to study with Benjamin West - an artist born in North America but who had settled there some 20 years earlier and had been instrumental in launching the Royal Academy. Dunlap returned to New York City in 1787 where he completed a first major canvas, The Artist Showing a Picture from Hamlet to His Parents. However, he had picked up the theatre bug in London, and soon found himself focusing mostly on writing plays, and then producing them. His first, The Father, or American Shandyism, was performed in 1789.  That same year, he married Elizabeth Woolsey, and they later had two children.

For the best part of the next two decades, Dunlap worked exclusively in the theatre, writing (more than 60 plays, many adaptations or translations from French or German originals) and managing, only to resume painting (miniatures) after he became bankrupt in 1805. He continued to invest his time in the theatre world until 1812 when he turned to executing portraits on commission. After working as assistant paymaster general in the New York militia for a couple of years, he began to paint large canvases of religious and historical subjects. He exhibited regularly at the American Academy of the Fine Arts in New York, and was a member from 1817 to 1828, and well as keeper, librarian, and a member of the board of directors from 1817 to 1819. In 1826 he helped found the rival National Academy of Design, where he served as vice president from 1832 to 1838. He exhibited there from 1826 to 1838, and from 1831 to 1838 was the professor of historical composition.

Dunlap is best remembered for his encyclopaedic three-volume History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, published in 1834, which is still considered today an important source of information about artists, collecting, and artistic life generally during the colonial and federal periods. He died on 28 September 1839. Further information is available online from the National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia,, or American Art Gallery.

Dunlap kept a diary for much of his life, and may have left behind 30 or more small volumes. However, only 11 of them - extending over a period of 48 years - were found when, in the late 1920s, The New York Historical Society decided to publish them. Issued in 1930 as Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839) - The Memoirs of a Dramatist, Theatrical Manager, Painter, Critic, Novelist, and Historian, all three volumes are freely available at Internet Archive (Vol 1 1786-1798, Vol 2 1806-1822, Vol 3 1832-1834). In its preface, the Society noted that Dunlap’s diary had been consulted in manuscript form to good purpose, by historians of drama and painting, but that now, by printing it in a more ‘convenient form’, the diary ‘should be an invaluable source for many phases of American society and culture during the first half century of the Republic.’

In its introduction, the Society goes on to explain that the three printed volumes represent three periods of Dunlap’s life:‘The first includes two years of great importance to the history of the New York stage, when Dunlap was manager of the Old American Company of Comedians, and a lessee of the Park Theatre. The second volume is devoted more particularly to his life as an artist, when, after his bankruptcy, he painted portraits throughout the eastern states as a means of livelihood, returning to the theatre for only a short time as a salaried manager to Abthorpe Cooper. The third volume [. . .] finds Dunlap, old, ill, and impoverished, summing up the knowledge and experience of a life time, in his histories of the American theatre and American arts.’ 

The following extracts are all taken from the second volume, exactly as published (inc. spelling errors etc.).

18 October 1819
‘Take the Steam boat for Bristol to see Cooper for information respecting the south & for letters. Sully has not had a portrait to paint for Phil: since May last & but four for Strangers, he is painting Washington crossing the Delaware, for Exhibition - a fine Composition. In conjunction with [James] Earl[e] he has erected a Gallery & they Exhibit some good pictures but with out success as to profit. Leslie’s Death of Rutland, bold, broad, fine. Horse & Snake. Landscapes by Shaw, good, colouring like Loutherburg. A small Landscape by Gainsborough beautiful & bold. [Charles B.] King is at Washington he will show me some machines for preserving Colours when ground. I called on Warren yesterday, who is always the same good natured, fat, friendly creature, he has 4 or five children by his last wife - politely invites me to the Theatre & greenroom. They have played 12 nights to some profit. I understand that it is to Newcastle 40 miles, by land to hd of Elk 18, by water to Baltimore.

Arrive at Bristol & find that Cooper had gone to Philadelphia. Walk to the Shamony & returning to Dinner, find Cooper landing from Steam Boat and return to his house with him - pass the day & followg night. He gives me letters to [blank] in Fayetteville, Newburn, Wilmington, Raleigh.

To ask S respecting Mr S’s push I did so, and he said he began the business unknown to Trumbul, but soon told all & T appeared pleased to instruct him.’

25 October 1819
‘Prepare to paint a Miniature, but to my great chagrin my Landlord tells me he cannot give me employment, for if one is painted all must be painted. Morse comes to see me & mentions a little loan of money I made him when I last saw him, with promise of repayment before I go. F. Lewis calls to see me. Morse says his situation in the Navy is secure, it is 55 dols pr month. He only needs an arrangement with his former creditors in Massachusetts, to enable him to take orders & obtain a good living. They call him here Doctor Morse. Glenn my Landlord comes to tell me that he will have his two daughters painted in Oil, the Girls so preferring, and I am to do them at $25 each. This restores me again. Returning from a walk to the north over the same arid plain cover’d with pine which is seen in every direction except where water diversifies the prospect, I found the following polite note: “Chas H Graham will be pleased to see Mr Dunlap at the Theatre whenever that place offers any amusement for him. Monday afnoon 25th Oct 1819.”

I wrote a note in answer and leaving it at the door of the Theatre went in & saw a Comedy new to me called “The sons of Erin. I was pleased with it, and found unexpected good acting in some men whose names I had never heard to remember. Mr Finn is natural, has good judgment, good voice, pretty good person, expressive countenance, an easy genteel manner without being graceful. Mr Brown played an Irish servant extremely well. Mr Dalton, a coxcomb in pretty good style. Mr Thomas was above mediocrity. The ladies were my old acquaintances Mrs Young, Mrs Clarke (formerly Miss Harding) Mrs Hayes (formerly Claude & once Miss Hogg) Mrs Wheatley. Mr Pritchard, whom I met yesterday, is to play Othello on Wednesday, first time of appear here.’

8 November 1819
‘Call at Mr Southgates (to whom I was last night introduced) and pass half an hour with Bishop Moore. He is visiting his Diocese, returns here in about a fortnight & then goes home to Richmond. I am to paint his picture gratuitously, he being pleased with the offer, to be given to some friend to the North. He has children in Philadelphia. He recommends my being in Richmond during the session of the Legislature, promisses me his assistance & thinks I shall have employment. Mrs Southgate talks of a picture. Paint on the two Misses Glenn. Evening meet Gilfert at the Theatre. He says he can promise me 2 or 3 portraits to paint in Richmond. I have engaged a room to paint in, at a house but a short distance from my Hotel.’

18 November 1819
‘Mr More, the painter above mentioned as introducing himself to me, hearing that I was going towards Richmond, suggested my stopping at Surry Court house to paint the family of a Mr Price & a Doctor Graves, who wished him to do it, but he had no oilapparatus, he asked 50 dolls for a portrait. On talking to Mr Glen he knowing Price, I write to day to him, & offer to come thither on an engagement for at least 4 portraits at 30, 50, or 75 dolls according to size. Paint on Glen. We have in the house Mr Wrifford a teacher of writing, a New England man, a character, he affords me entertainment, by shrewd remarks & eccentric manners. He is a singer & has a noble voice. Evening read in Kings. How does Elisha’s words “take my life for I am not better than my fathers” agree with the notion of his being an incarnate Angel? The book says 7000 had not bowed the knee to Baal, the Commentator says 7000 does not mean 7000 but a great many thousand, a majority of the nation, soon after the fighting men of Israel are number’d at 7000 & the commentator laments that Israel was so thinned, so reduced in number. “A Wall fell upon 27000 men & crush’d them” says the Com: “probably a burning wind is meant” We are told that what is translated ashes may mean bandage or fillet. Again ‘‘Gan Yirek may mean Garden of herbs or Grass plat. “Naboth did blaspheme God & the King” may be render’d “Naboth hath blessed God & the King” and the word barac may mean either bless or curse. How then is a sincere man to read this book? Again Ahab walked softly may be “barefooted” or groaning or with down hanging head. This curious Book must then it would appear be read with constant doubt as to the meaning of the original independent of all other doubts.’

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