Date Awarded

Summer 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Susan V Webster

Committee Member

Alan C Braddock

Committee Member

Karin A Wulf

Committee Member

Jennifer Van Horn


This dissertation critically examines the political and social significance of colonial portraiture by focusing on domestic portraits commissioned for Virginians between the mid-seventeenth century and 1775. Portraiture was a site where colonial and imperial identity was negotiated and expressed. Portraits also supported the construction of social relationships through the acts of representation, erasure, and reception. Chapter one focuses on portraits painted in England for Virginians before ca. 1735 and the use of English portrait conventions to suit the political needs of colonists and to express visions of themselves as agents of empire. This chapter reveals some of the ways Virginians used portraits to engage in transatlantic politics and social networks. Chapter two uncovers the regional preferences for expressing elite, community values centered around gender and family before 1770 in portraits of men, women, and children. It argues that portrait collections had dynastic purposes and visualized women as sexual beings and men as masters over colonial and female nature. Chapter three discusses the influence that enslaved Africans had on portraits of Virginians throughout the colonial period. It argues that the physical presence of enslaved people as audiences caused colonists to erase them from portraiture in order to construct and enforce a plantation complex system of visuality. Planters also disavowed the realities of slavery to emphasize their British civility. The last chapter uncovers the rapid changes in portraiture in the 1770s as colonists and artists confronted imperial crises and responded in diverse ways. The fracturing of gentry planter cohesion and the greater availability of artists changed portraiture in the colony. Virginians left behind the conventionalized nature of portraiture from earlier decades and many began including messages of resistance to imperial policy and partaking in pan-colonial modes of representation. This dissertation combines archival research with visual analysis to shed light on portraiture from a region typically overlooked by art historians. By focusing on a specific region over a long period of time, this project emphasizes the varied and important roles that portraits played in shaping colonial culture and society.



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