A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr., By Harlan Lane, Beacon, 190 pp., illustrated, $35
Faces as pallid and evocative as full moons. Shadowy background tones of sienna and umber. Simple, stylized lone figures in the foreground, rendered with a genuineness, a clarity, respectfully. Artful yet guileless.
All are traits of John Brewster Jr.'s portraits, which, cumulatively, amount to what author Harlan Lane, in ''A Deaf Artist in Early America," calls the painter's ''Deaf visual advantage."
Brewster (1766-1854) was born deaf, the son of hearing parents. It was, as Lane says, a ''proud and privileged household." As a descendant of William Brewster, the Pilgrim leader, Brewster never lacked for prominent patrons. Some 250 of his paintings have been unearthed with, followers hope, more to come.
Brewster was a ''limner," an itinerant portrait painter. In many ways, he traveled apart from his limner peers, particularly those who were deaf. Because of his family's standing, he wasn't forced to trek from door to door around New England, portrait peddling. While he did allude to his ''unfortunate situation," he never signed his works ''sourd-muet" -- ''deaf mute" -- as did other deaf artists of his time.
Lane, an authority on deafness and professor in the psychology department at Northeastern University, explains in the biography -- which is tied to an exhibition tour of Brewster's work -- that Brewster's gift was manifest by age 25. At the outset of his career, he did make an appeal for sympathy. For example, records of 1779 confirm he advertised his services as an artist in a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., journal. ''All who may please to favor him in his unfortunate situation will be satisfied," the ad read. That subservience would in time give way to a self-assurance that coincided with a maturity of his style.
Brewster's career also nicely paralleled the rise of what the author calls ''the Golden Age of American portraiture" and closed with the advent of the daguerreotype, an early form of photography.
According to Lane, Brewster's works reflect an ''affirmation of family." In fact, one of the most insightful chapters examines Brewster's and his society's treatment of children. His paintings transcend the changing attitudes, from portraits of children as ''emotionless . . . miniature adults" to a public sense that ''adults were corrupt, but children's hearts and minds were innocent; they were little angels," notes Lane. (He points out that Brewster never married, perhaps because, like many other deaf, he feared foisting deafness on his progeny.)
Lane deftly helps the reader empathize with Brewster's plight/triumph. In one passage, for instance, he writes, ''What did it mean to Brewster to include a musical instrument in the portrait, with music presumably quite outside his experience? When asked how he imagined the sound of a trumpet, the Deaf Frenchman Jean Massieu, the leading Deaf educator of the period, answered that he supposed it was like a brilliant sunset."
Lane also shines in his extensive history of deafness and deaf artists, mentioning Quintus Pedius, the first recorded deaf artist, who painted for Julius Caesar, and the great 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, who went deaf as an adult. (A contemporary critic, Lane informs us, says Goya ''was not particularly outstanding until he lost his hearing" -- once more, ''the Deaf visual advantage.") Lane tells us about Thomas Brown of Henniker, N.H., who crossed paths with Brewster and was called by the press ''patriarch of the silent tribes" and founded the precursors of major deafness advocacy organizations still active today.
The author offers us some fascinating discussion of how American botanist Gregor Mendel's pioneering findings on the laws of heredity apply to the American deaf population. He delves deep into the deaf community on Martha's Vineyard, as well as France's historic headway in deaf education.
In addition, Lane traces the historical development of what he calls deafness as a minority culture, with its implications for politics today. And he has a keen sense of children's mortality, a fact of life in Brewster's time. One of three died before age 20, he reports. ''Puritan life was led next to an open grave -- a further reason Puritans sought artists to re-create their likenesses, so that they might be remembered."
Although Lane suggests that Brewster's works are not ''folk art," stating that ''true folk art . . . is grounded in local custom and passed down across generations," my response is that Brewster's paintings -- in tone, naivete, clarity, and simplicity -- qualify as part of this genre.
Lane gives us an anecdote as basic and appealing as are John Brewster Jr.'s paintings themselves. ''A Vineyard woman in her eighties, when asked about those who were handicapped by deafness when she was a girl in Chilmark, replied, 'Oh, those people weren't handicapped; they were just deaf.' "
A traveling exhibit of Brewster's work over the next two years includes a show at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., April 1-Dec. 1, 2005.