Robert Feke (1705 or 1707 – 1752) was an American portrait painter born in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. His works are known for their sobriety, their uniformity, their rich colors. Feke worked in Boston, where he painted merchants and owners between 1741 and 1750. He was influenced by the British painter John Wollaston.
According to art historian Richard Saunders, “Feke’s impact on the development of Colonial painting was substantial, and his pictures set a new standard by which the work of the next generation of aspiring Colonial artists was judged.” In total, about 60 paintings by Feke survive, twelve of which are signed and dated.
Little is known for certain about his life, particularly his early years. Only one work by Feke, a portrait of a child, is datable before 1741. In that year he moved to Boston, where he painted Isaac Royall and Family (1741), a group portrait which borrows its composition from John Smybert’s The Bermuda Group (1729). Feke’s works also show the influence of John Wollaston.
From 1741 until 1750, Feke worked in Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, painting wealthy merchants and landowners. The latest record of his activities is August 26, 1751; suggestions by Feke’s early biographers that he died in Barbados or Bermuda have not been substantiated.
Feke’s paintings are known for their sobriety and uniformity, but also for their rich colours and painterly boldness.
Portrait of Mrs. Samuel McCall, Sr. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
One of several portraits of Philadelphia’s McCall family, this painting features a young woman standing erect in front of an Ionic column and beside a swath of crimson drapery and a Rococo marble-topped table on which she rests her hand. Imposing, elegant, and spare, it shows how Robert Feke provided dignified portraits for his clientele, whether in Philadelphia, Boston, Virginia, or Barbados.
The first major native-born artist of the British North American colonies, Feke is known for his relatively large, impressive portraits. He borrowed from the tradition of Baroque portraiture, including swags of brightly colored drapery, columns, elegant dresses, and props. His grand portraits of colonists dressed and posed in the guise of English nobility evoke a quality of dignity and grace, and as exemplified in this excellent example, showcase a combination of grandeur and simplicity.
At the time Feke painted Anne McCall, she had been married for nine years to her cousin, Samuel, a prominent Philadelphia merchant. Here, she is dressed in a radiant, crystal-buttoned, blue silk dress, with a salmon pink underskirt, accentuated at the narrow waist by a tassel belt. She gracefully holds a peony in her long, tapering fingers.
Benjamin Franklin Harvard Art Museums
Mrs. Charles Apthorp (Grizzell Eastwick Apthorp) de Young Museum
Ralph Inman Harvard Art Museums
Thomas Hopkinson Smithsonian American Art Museum