William Dunlap

First American to write a book on the history of art in the United States, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, 1834. Dunlap was the only child of a New Jersey housewares merchant, Samuel Dunlap and his wife, Margaret Sargent (Dunlap). The family moved to New York city in 1777 where the father, a Loyalist, was sought refuge (New York was British headquarters at the time). The younger Dunlap was largely self-educated. Despite losing sight in one eye in an accident, he became a professional portrait painter at sixteen, achieving modest fame with two paintings of George Washington. He traveled to London in 1784 to study with Benjamin West where the London theater impressed him as much as the graphic arts. Back in the United States in 1787, Dunlap continued as a portrait painter, yet his true interest was the theatre. In 1787 Dunlap began writing plays. He married Elizabeth “Nabby” Woolsey in 1789. He joined his father’s business, continuing to paint and write. In 1796 he became a partner and manager of the theatrical concern, the American Company and, although several of his plays were produced, none was a success. He left the company, painting to support himself, before returning to the theater in 1806 as manager of T. A. Cooper’s theatrical interests, including the Park Theater. Dunlap left theater managing permanently in 1811 to pursued painting in earnest. He joined the American Academy of the Fine Arts and later through the National Academy of Design organizing exhibitions and working as a professor of historic painting. In 1812 he started the journal Monthly Recorder, a fine arts and literary periodical. He published The Memoirs of George Fred. Cooke, Esq., Late of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1813 and The Life of Charles Brockden Brown in 1815. His important article on the early history of the American stage, “The History of the American Theatre” appeared in 1832. In 1834 Dunlap self-published his History of the Rise and Development of the Arts of Design in the United States, a biographical dictionary of early American artists with commentary. Though the book is full of errors and prejudice (Rowland), it provides a valuable record of the period. Other histories by Dunlap included The History of New York, for Schools (1837) and volume one of The History of the New Netherlands, the Province of New York, and State of New York in 1839, the year of his death.

History of the Rise and Development of the Arts was the first book to trace the emergence of the visual arts tradition in the United States (Lyons). He conceived of his book as “a reverse Gibbon,” referring to the book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Dunlap worked throughout his life toward diversifying an American taste in art and drama, which were still largely British-centric. Many theater historians regard as the father of the American drama. The History as a relatively random assembly of biographies. More recently, Maura Lyons asserted Dunlap’s accomplishment was to create a “partisan tract shaped by competing professional, regional and commercial interests.”

Dictionary of Art Historians, Lee Sorensen, ed. www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org

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