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Deaf Artist: John Brewster

By Jerrad Walls

John Brewster is widely considered one of the great deaf artists of his time or ever. He is famous for his vivid pictures of American life. He created, "masterpieces of American painting" and Brewster himself is labeled "an undisputed master of the genre." He was a key pioneer of a style of American folk portraiture that began to dominate rural New England. It was very similar to the style English Grand Manner which was shown through the works of Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl. The Grand Manner style depicted a romanticized view of the subject, with rich colors and an exploration of detail in the subject's features, costume, and setting. By working in a folk art style that emphasized simpler settings, broad, flat areas of color, and soft, expressive facial features, Brewster was able to achieve a level of detail that was unmatched for his time. The great things he was able to accomplished over the course of his career just goes to show how accurate the famous deaf phrase "Deaf People Can Do Anything Except Hear" really is.
Although little is known about Brewster's childhood and youth, it is likely that his early years were spent largely within a close circle of family and friends. He was born on May 30,1766, the third child of Dr. John and Mary Brewster of Hampton, Connecticut. Being deaf from birth and growing up long before the development of standardized signing systems for the deaf, Brewster probably could only communicate well with those closest to him. His mother died when he was seventeen; his father and new stepmother Ruth Avery of Brooklyn, Connecticut would go on to have four more children after John. Brewster first learned to paint around 1790 from a good friend of the family Reverend Joseph Steward. Many of Brewster's early works greatly resembled the works of Steward. Soon however, he began to distinguish himself as a gifted artist developing unique qualities in his own style. Brewster's career flourished quite early. His signature style soon became painting children in full length format. The paintings depicted children in white garments with large expressive eyes emphasizing the child's innocence. From the pictures it is evident that Brewster seemed to have a special bond with children. His deafness is believed to be the cause for his mature portrait style. Around 1805, he began to paint half length pictures which were less expensive than the full length portraits. The half length format allowed Brewster to focus even more attention on the subjects face thus his best work came out when he switched to this style. He would continue this style until around 1817.
In 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened up and Brewster eagerly enrolled. At age 51 Brewster was the oldest student at the school, but he had a strong desire to learn. He was witness to the birth of American Sign Language (ASL). After leaving the school in 1820 he faced the predicament of reentering the world of the hearing or embrace his newfound Deaf community. He ultimately decided to return to living with the hearing. Brewster's short time at the school greatly influenced his art. His paintings from the 1820's to the early 1830's showed even more of an emphasis on the characterization of the sitter by unique uses of shading bringing out a more solemn effect to the paintings. Brewster would continue with this style until his death in 1854.
John Brewster is widely considered one of the greatest folk painters in American history. His deafness was not seen as an obstacle in his life. He instead used his Deafness to strengthen others aspects of his skills. To this day his works are still unmatched in their uniqueness. His determination in overcoming communication challenges should be an inspiration not only to Deaf people but hearing people as well.


Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr. (2005, Dec. 31) Resource Library Magazine.

Lane, Harlan Deaf Artist: The World of John Brewster Jr. Beacon Press (2004} ISBN 0-8070-6616-8

Paul D'Ambrosio, catalog for the exhibit "A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr." (catalog referred to in Genocchio's art review in The New York Times)


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