John Mare was a notable figure in colonial painting as a portraitist based in New York City. He created bust length likenesses, often in three-quarter view, and took notable care in rendering the details of textiles and decorations in his works. His style is comparable to his contemporaries John Wollaston and Thomas McIlworth. Together, these early artists helped to establish the intellectually skilled role of fine artists in the colonies.
Mare was born in 1739 in New York City. Though his father worked as a mariner or laborer, he acquired property of significant value. Mare’s interest in painting was likely encouraged by his brother-in-law, William Williams, who later served as a mentor to Benjamin West. By 1759 Mare had established himself as a portraitist in Albany, where he had access to prominent Hudson Valley landowners. His earliest known work is a 1760 portrait of Henry Livingston, a member of one of the most politically influential families of the time.
Upon his return to New York in 1765, Mare developed a likeness of King George III. It was acquired by the Common Council of New York in 1766, and used to offset an honorary image of William Pitt, who pushed to repeal the Stamp Act. The following year, he produced a portrait of John Keteltas; the fly pictured on his sleeve been identified as the first example of trompe l’oeil in the history of American art. During this period, Mare was a primary portraitist working in New York. He also became connected to patrons further afield, painting John Torrey of Boston in 1768. His image of Jeremiah Platt, an esteemed merchant, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955.
Mare relocated to Albany in 1772, and became an active member of the local Masonic lodge, where he had the opportunity to mingle with prominent figures in the area. His last known work, a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Youngs Prime, was created several years later. The remainder of his life was spent in Edenton, North Carolina, as a businessman and political figure of repute. In the years before his death in 1802, he made generous donations towards the war for independence, and voted to ratify the Constitution of the United States as a representative for the town of Edenton. Taken together, Mare’s political and artistic contributions mark him as a fascinating figure of his time.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate