The New Taste in Pennsylvania

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

Like the nation itself during the so-called “Federal” period, the arts in Pennsylvania reached a crescendo in their development that had an unexpected unity, a strong purpose, and a national style. Despite great varia­tions in the Germanic and English traditions, Pennsylvania emerged from the revolutionary period reasonably cohesive. City and country perspectives, naive and sophisticated re­quirements, and the need for self-esteem, within the restric­tions of a strong Christian ethic, were satisfied in the ornamental arts. The abundance of natural resources – iron, good clay, hard woods – drew the finest craftsmen to Pennsylvania. Prosperity and quality were reflected in the life of the Pennsylvania patron and in the work of the Pennsylvania artist. Painters, cabinetmakers, Fraktur-artists, silversmiths, gunsmiths and potters worked with an eye towards beauty that, for the first time in America, rivaled function in importance. Not since ancient times had the elegant, classical aesthetic been as attractive, and with it came the gentility that Americans had relinquished at the beginning of the Revolution. A return to tradition after the war was no more than a return to respectability.

In Pennsylvania, as in other affluent states. an immedi­ate resumption of foreign trade caused the work of Euro­pean craftsmen to flow again into major ports, reacquainting Americans with the current European high style in the decorative arts. Like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Charleston, the bustling city of Philadelphia was a major mercantile center receiving these goods, a port city that fed the outlying Pennsylvania districts with design and fashion books, textiles, furniture, prints, and art supplies. Philadel­phia was the most important intellectual and artistic center in America during the neoclassic period. It had many firsts at this time – first capitol, first art school, and first museum. Every good American painter of the late 18th century worked for some time in Philadelphia. The city supported America’s first great family of artists, the Peales, and nurtured one of the first unions of craftsmen, the Federal Society of Cabinetmakers. Artists from the provinces of Pennsylvania closely following the efforts of Philadelphians, elevated taste throughout the state.

The concept of taste is important to any understanding of cultural history, and, although a formal American aesthe­tic was not expounded until the time of Horatio Greenough and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man’s art, his tools and his patrons, told a story of his needs, his abilities, and his values. Taste in the later 18th century was considered to be of national importance, a corollary of the accepted belief that beauty fostered moral virtue. Nothing in neoclassic America was considered beautiful that was not also believed to be moral. Many churches in Pennsylvania encouraged the decorative arts in this “New Light” of “Spirit” as “Beauty,” and the finest schools in Pennsylvania, which were also some of the earliest in America, increased the teaching of the arts by employing professional artists, men like George Fetter, William Van Vleck, and Samuel Reinke, in Bethlehem and Lancaster, and by enlarging the curricu­lum to include the study of ancient Greek sculpture and belles-lettres. There were objections to the excessive cultivation of the arts from some educators who believed that art was corrupting, and from Quakers who questioned the costs of acquiring a new sense of taste. Generally, however, “a good Taste seems to be little else than right Reason, which we otherwise express by the Word Judgment.” It was in this spirit of right reason that a Pennsyl­vania country Quaker named Benjamin West led the way to the new classicism.

The artist who celebrated ” … antique virtues in modern life … ” represented a return to the great free but ordered society. Art was no longer entirely supported by the aristo­crats of birth and rank as it had been in Europe. A return to classical pride in citizenship, in nation, and in educated taste, were the new values and with education being made more available to the rising middle class in Pennsylvania a new patron developed. He was provident, virtuous, and visibly successful. As the Christian ethic became more secular, it accepted new symbols of spirit, the carnation and rose, the eagle and pelican, the cherub and Goddess, and allowed the new patron to identify himself with desirable Greek ideals. Considering the need for Ancient and Christian symbolism to blend with the variations inherent in the religious structure of Pennsylvania only a broad, humanist art could possibly flourish.

What was the language of this new style? It was ornamental, like the flowers in a garden, and two dimensional as compared with the sculptural qualities of the earlier rococo style. The design vocabulary consisted of oval shapes, urns, altars or plinths, swags, columns, evergreens, winged angels, seraphs, or cherubim, Grecian females and heroes rather than men. The motifs were found on history paintings, on furniture as inlay or paint, carved and engraved on guns, scratched in or glazed on earthenware, and etched into glass. Work was copied, in the very best sense, so that truth, not imagination, might be the first important expression. Original paintings were copied as prints, as silk needlework, as watercolors on paper, or as silhouettes. Copying was executed with the respect and freedom accorded the practice by neoclassic tradition all over the world. As Wedgwood stated in the publication of of his catalogues of the 1780’s,

Nothing can contribute more effectively to diffuse a good Taste through the Arts, than the Poer of multiplying Copies of fine Things, by which Means the public Eye is instructed … The more Copies there arc … the more celebrated the Original will be.

It was difficult then for the American public to make distinctions between artist and artisan. Creativity and imagination were not the determining features and, that an artist was expected to discover or reveal rather than to create beauty, as Dr. Gowans phrased it, only confused a patron’s mind as well as his eye. Many fine artists began in the craftsman tradition. Charles Willson Peale, apprenticed to a saddler, became a tinkerer of clocks, then a brass caster, and finally a silversmith before working as a painter. His beginnings magnify the indistinguishable line between the useful and the decorative arts, between the artist and the craftsman. The only identifying mark of a professional painter was proper apprenticeship training, of necessity re­ceived in Europe, or firsthand knowledge of Greek statuary studied in the ancient cities of the Mediterranean or in the few private English collections. With such restrictions on available art training, most American painters had to be classified as limners, and architects classified as gentlemen. Before going abroad John Singleton Copley sourly remarked that his painting career was” … no more than any other useful trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shewmaker.”

Neoclassicism in Pennsylvania, as in the nation, began with the painters and the architects. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Moravian and Pennsylvanian on his mother’s side, concepts to the American architect. He emphasized the brought the monumental as well as the practical neoclassic logical relationship between space and structure. He intro­duced a temple-type building, a synthesis of Greek and Roman structures which, like the eagle, became a classical symbol of the nation’s new democratic government. La­trobe’s attitude and technical competence introduced a professional image to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and finally to the nation. He showed coherence in his designs of the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Waterworks, two temples that functioned well.

The Lancaster Quaker Benjamin West first turned painting into an international celebration of the beautiful antique mind. He was unique in that he used, in addition to classical subjects, figures from the Bible and from impor­tant current events. He was the major influence on the four great neoclassic American painters, Copley, Stuart, Peale and Trumbull.

Latrobe and West introduced into Pennsylvania, and to all America, the many Greco- Roman theories expounded by J. J. Winckelmann, the German art critic who was responsible for the initial formulation of this “geometry of the mind,” as Edgar Richardson called the style. Symmetry from the actual study of numbers, and a flat, linear orna­ment became the new painting approach. Winckelmann’s emphasis was on abstracting essentials, painting timeless details, and identifying beautiful realities. Purity, elegance, emotion and restraint, the classical virtues, became the foundations for Pennsylvania art and Pennsylvania educa­tion.

A follower of the new style and a leader of America’s portrait painters, Charles Willson Peale worked in Phila­delphia. He founded the first art school and the first museum. Somehow he combined an American innocence and ingenuity with his experience in the European painter’s atmosphere. He came out glorifying the beauties of being human. He heard God in every chirping bird, saw God in every man. He was as concerned with natural history as with art history. He was a city painter with an under­standing of the countryside.

The whole family of Peales – Rembrandt, Raphaelle, James and Anna Claypoole – typify Pennsylvania’s concern for the arts. They worked to benefit the art schools, public exhibitions, museums, and the cause of women artists; to expand taste through education; and to reach upwards to God.

The new taste was not limited to the large city nor to the Peale family. The countryside of Lancaster hosted wealthy patrons, good craftsmen, and artists, who knew the classical design motifs and satisfied the unsophisticated as well as those with more worldly tastes. Neoclassicism was, after all, a rather cerebral art style with symbolism, both ancient and Christian, that conveyed meaningful ideas to all levels of society. From the bell flowers and foliate ornament on the Pennsylvania German organs and the flowery Ephrata hymnals, to the doves, eagles and pelicans on the gun stocks of the Kentucky rifle and on the illuminating arts, neoclassic ornament was part of Pennsylvania, not merely part of the urban centers. Jacob Eichholtz, though untrained, was a professional painter in that he worked in the new style. Craftsmen in wood like Bachman, Lind, Burkhart, and Frick added the new ornament to their still rococo-baroque Pennsylvania style. The 18th century Fraktur-artists Krebs. Otto, Brechall, Schuller, Dirdorff, and Dutye – so often considered naive – were aware of the symbols they used, the meanings they expressed, and knew they were understood as beautiful expressions of spirit by the more secular Lutheran and Reformed religious communities. The neoclassic dependence on line, ornament, and symbolic iconography told the Christian message after replacing traditional Christian symbols of church and cross. The Vorschrift, a handwriting exercise, and the Taufschein, a certificate of birth or baptism, expressed God’s glory in abstract “messages” keyed to theology and mythology. Like the swan that bore Christ on its back and mothered Apollo, multifaceted embellishments bore the spirit of the Pennsylvania German.

Engraving, often considered by moderns as the poor relation of painting, was a great vehicle for news and a successful means of decoration in the new nation. Although engravings were things of the moment and paintings were meant for posterity. the public enjoyed owning the engraved print. It was in Philadelphia that the technique of engraving was raised to a new level by the arrival of the miniature painter and engraver William Russell Birch in the late 18th century. His engravings of the scenic landscapes presaged the 19th century artist’s ability to catch, to hold, and to dramatize the beauties of nature as well as of man. The list of Pennsylvania artists would not be complete without mention of John Lewis Krimmel, the pioneer of genre painting in Philadelphia. That his work was cut short by an early death leaves Pennsylvanians with just a few of the early sights he recorded.

Neoclassic design, begun by the architect and the painter. was shared by the cabinetmaker, the ironmonger, the glassworker, the gunsmith, and the “tinmen.” Benjamin Randolph of Philadelphia made the first desk in the new style. Its subsequent use by Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence adds to its renown in the new idealist republic. The first piano in the neoclassic style was made by another Philadelphian, Charles Albrecht. Cabinetmakers like Aiken, Haines, and Trotter worked in Philadelphia, while Johannes Rank and Christian Selzer, German chest makers and decorators, worked in the outlying districts of Pennsylvania. Though many of the Germans settled away from the mainstream of mercantile interests, they were affected by the revived and worldly concepts, and Pennsylvania divines like Count Zinzendorf and Emanuel Swedenborg were as much a support for the ornamental artists as the art patrons. But then the art of this period was different from what it had been before- it was more concerned with the visible spirit – and the theology of this period was different, too – more concerned with humanitarian reform, with emphasis on the hear-and-now. As the artist accepted classic order as his moral obiigation, the theologian saw beauty of form as a visible spiritual sign. Theologian and artist joined hands, not for the first time and not for the last.

Craftsmen, also, were working together. The carver’s influence was seen in the sculptured bonnet-tops of high chests and bookcases; traces of the artist’s brush were found on the cabinetmaker’s painted Sheraton chairs, on dower chests, and on looking glasses. The tabernacle looking-glass resembled a Federal doorcase as architectural design influenced interior design. The drawn and painted motifs settled on no one surface. The natural forms, animals, birds, flowers and trees, that appeared on German baptismal certificates were repeated on English silk pictures, on the composition-ornamented chimneypieces, as molding over door arches, and on punched tin in the kitchen. With Nature being freely used as a symbol of Spirit, God was necessarily found all over the house.

Beyond painting, embroidery. and furniture the linear art of 1776 extended to shapes in silver, pewter, pottery, glass, brass. copper. iron, and tin. Much of Pennsylvania’s strength lay in its natural resources which encouraged settlement, investment, and talent to converge here. Philadelphia silversmiths – like the Anthonys, Joseph Lowness, and the Richardsons – refitted objects that maintained the utilitarian requirements of colonial times within the expanding taste of a public educated to the ornamental style. The new style turned round salts into ovals, sugar bowls into urns.

Even the gunsmith chose not to ignore beauty, now an equal partner to function. The gun, a tool of survival in the new nation, was considered by Joe Kindig, Jr., as an expression of the Pennsylvanians’ “… search for freedom and for beauty – their search for God …” Gunsmiths worked from east to west in Pennsylvania, particularly in Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh, Lebanon, York, Adams, and Franklin Counties. Of the many fine craftsmen-artists, the Lebanon County School of the Becks and N. Beyer show the religious inspiration that unites all the art of Pennsylvania. Even on such utilitarian objects as guns these men engraved “INRI,” latin initials representing Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The design of the total piece; the carving on the stock; the engraving on the brass; the ornamental flower, bird, and human forms; the lock; and the fit of the pieces into the whole meant the mastery of many forms of art in one piece. After the Revolution, it seems, the Pennsylvanian required as much workmanship and as much meaningful symbolism from his utilitarian objects as from his decorative ones.

Earthenware shapes changed very little from pre-revolu­tionary times. The play of color, of ideas, of humor produced by Pennsylvania German-potters like Georg Hübner, were expressed by classical inscriptions on the sgraffito ware, their scratched, slip, red earthenware. The potter Neesz designed a horseman reminiscent of the Greek legend of Apollo. Cream-colored ware, previously imported from England, was attempted by John Curtis of Philadel­phia in 1791, although it was almost impossible to co􀀂pete successfully with Wedgwood, Neale, and the manufactories at Castleford and Leeds in England that produced the so-­called “Anglo-American ware.”

Glass was made in many parts of Pennsylvania during the Federal period. The Philadelphia Glass Works, also called Kensington Glass Works, founded in the 1770’s, began to function in the same successful manner as the famous Stiegel Glasshouse. It continued to produce glass on and off until 1900. The New Geneva Glass Works, organized by Albert Gallatin in 1797, produced free­-blown as well as pattern-molded green glass, supplying the western part of the state with glass in the Federal taste.

Pewter shapes had changed a little to conform to the new classic shapes. Significantly, mugs replaced the tankard in popularity. Pennsylvania continued to produce good pewter and good pewterers like William Billings, Parks Boyd, John Andres Brunstrom, Thomas Danforth III, and William Will.

Brass was important to the art and to the industry of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia brass founders like Isaac Caustin, Zane and Chapman, Thomas Brooks and Daniel King pro­duced brass andirons in the new taste. “Fier Dogs with Corinthen Coloms” was the description of a pair made by King for John Cadwalader. Conforming to the Federal style of architecture, andirons became smaller to fit the changing size of fireplaces. Urns, eagles and elegant willows often adorned the surfaces of the brass. Copper kitchen­wares, for which Pennsylvania is renowned, were made during this period by Daniel King, Benjamin Harbeson, and Oat & Cooke who continued the neoclassic oval shapes and delicate foliate ornamentation.

Ornamental iron supplied by Pennsylvania’s iron fur­naces – Elizabeth, Cumberland and Carlisle Furnaces, Charming Forge, Carlisle Iron Works, Laurel Forge, Mount Holly, and Pine Grove – repeated the classical swags, vines, and foliate designs. The cast-iron Franklin stoves and the five-plated stoves bore the compositional balance of garden iconography which remained as important to the Penn­sylvania craftsman as it had been to the ancient Greek artisan.

Although tinware was a popular decorative art of the 19th century in Pennsylvania, the 1790 census lists eight “tinmen” already working in Philadelphia a decade before the end of the century. The punched tin floral and tree motifs certainly classify tin work as an art form con­temporary with the times.

There were these and many more fine crafts and craftsmen working diligently in Pennsylvania. One of the strongest influences in the life of the Pennsylvania artist­-craftsman, one that came even before the New England Great Awakening, was the statement of faith implicit in the material world that had come. The classic orienta­tion of purity and spirituality, grasped through an education of the senses, was rewarded by success. In as simple an exercise as penmanship a well-formed word carried God’s blessing to the competent.

Although many books have emphasized the divergence of tradition between city and province, between merchant-craftsman and farmer-craftsman, between folk art and fine art, between German and English, there was unity in Pennsylvania art during the last quarter of the 18th cen­tury. It was consistently religious in nature. The differences disappear when one reads the symbolism together – flowers, foliage, eagle, dove, pelican, sun, moon, stars, columns, winged creatures, altar, garden and vine. The period of high neoclassic style in Pennsylvania was a celebration of secular faith that replaced orthodoxy in the social and ecclesiastical communities. As messages of faith, symbols of education, and testimonies of self-esteem, Pennsylvania art was part of the spirit that allowed men like Pietist Daniel Falchner to believe that in Pennsylvania “one can be a peasant, scholar, priest and nobleman at once without interference.” The beauty of the Pennsylvania spirit rests in the achievement of true classic balance and the uni­versality of the new taste. Acceptance of the material world as an expression of the Spirit allows the creation of Divine Heaven, reminiscent of Eden, of Gethsemane, and of the Resurrection in the symbolic garden of Pennsylvania.



Fairbanks, Jonathan L. Paul Revere’s Boston: 1735-1818. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1975.

Ferguson, George. Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Flexner, James Thomas. First Flowers of Our Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947.

Gowans, Alan. Images of American Living. New York: J. B. Lippin­cott Company, 1964.

Kauffman, Henry J. The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1960.

Kauffman, Henry J. and Bowers, Quentin H. Early American Andirons and Other Fireplace Accessories. New York: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1974.

Kindig, Joe Jr. Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age. York, Pa.: George Shumway, 1960.

McKearin, Helen and George S. Two Hundred Years of American Blown Glass. New York: Bonanza Books, 1949.

Montgomery, Charles. American Furniture, The Federal Period. New York: The Viking Press, 1966.

Neil, J. Meredith. Towards a National Taste: The Fine Arts and Travel in American Magazines from 1783 to 1815. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1966.

Pierson, William H. Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Richardson, E. P. Painting in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1956.

Snyder, John J. Jr., Editor. Philadelphia Furniture & Its Makers. New York: Main Street/Universe Books, 1975.

Stillinger, Elizabeth. Decorative Arts in America 1600-1875. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973.

Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1964.


Anita Schorsch is the author of Mourning Becomes America, a book on mourning art. She has a graduate degree as a teacher of history and English and also did graduate study at the Tyler School of Fine Arts and at The Winterthur Institute. A contributing writer to art periodicals, she is also a spinner, weaver and needle-woman. She is a member of the PHMC.