Artists serving Firemen

In young America, artists found firemen
to be welcomed patrons.

In 1800 America, the Polite Arts consisted of music, poetry, landscape gardening, the Historical Arts and the Arts of Design. These Design Arts included drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving. They became the Fine Arts by 1900, completely seperate from decorations and ornaments. The local fire company was a social and cultural association. Good taste and knowledge of culture were parts of a firefighter's social interests. A fire company's members chose a subject to have painted on their engine. Then they voted on the exact local artist to commission. These oil paintings were usually on a removable wood panel. Panels were stored in the fire house and installed for parades, musters, balls, and other social events.

The system of apprenticeship in the American colonies came from the guilds of Europe. Children aged 11 or so would go off to work for a Master of some trade. At age 21 they became a free Journeyman. They could stay and work for their Master, start their own shop, work for someone else or seek training in a new field. Several of the artists listed below started as an artisan apprentice and moved on to portraiture in their 20s.

Portraits were what early Americans wanted from the artists of their time. Traveling portrait painters moved through rural America in the 1800s, finding clients in many small towns. Early 19th century Americans felt that they were living in a historic time. They recorded their presence in the New World for their ancesters to admire.

A wide variety of American artists painted in oils on fire buckets, parade hats, and fire engines for local fire companies. It was a good source of work between larger commissions. It was also a way a painter could display his skills to the community. In large cities artists competed for these jobs. Some engines had several paintings, each by a different artist. The firemen had the final say, choosing which artist and the theme of the painting. The hand engine belonged to the firemen and they paid for the decoration. They took great interest in the paint jobs and art work they commissioned.

Art students of the late 1700s went to London to study with Benjamin West. In the 1830s Americans began going to the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in Germany. This school taught figure painting in a humanist way. Students learned strong linear drawing with tight compositions. The subject matter was more direct than the symbolic figures and formal portraits of earlier paintings. Romantic images of everyday life and landscapes were added to the skills of American art students.

The Academy taught that the soul and character of a people is expressed through its countryside. Small landscapes soon appeared on fire engines along with dramatic paintings of fire scenes and rescues.

The popular oil painting on the left was made into prints. The hand painted fire engine panel on the right was based on the print.

The first few generations of artists in America did a lot of work for fire companies in cities, towns and villages. Portrait painters traveled through the fronter as well as from town to town. Any community with a fire company also had a fancy painter that could add stripes and ornaments to the engine. Small towns often bought used hand engines from larger communities and had them repainted. Every repaint from the 1800s that I have seen was ornate and beautifully done. The Fancy Style lasted through the 1840s in general, and for a lot longer with fire engines. Oil paintings on fire engines were still being produced through the 1930s.

A good artist could set up a studio in a city and keep busy with portraits and images on chairs, carriages, signs etc. Few artists could survive on just portraits. A fire company was a prestigious customer to get. They wanted the highest quality work, in good taste. Here are some artists from this early period, that painted for fire companies:

John Trumbull,   Thomas Sully,   J. A. Woodside,   Henry Inman,   Matthew Pratt,   William Sidney Mount,   John W. Jarvis,   Thomas Grinnell,   John Quidor,   D.R. Etter,   John Penniman,   John Burgum,  Charles Codman,   Rufus Porter,   A. P. Moriarty,   D. B. Bowser,   J. H. Cafferty,   J. H. Johnson,   G. G. Stambach,   John S. Brewer,   E. Weir,   James Burt,   C. P. Polk,   M. Betsch,   S. L. Gerry,   H. W. Hall,   J. B. Hudson,   Thomas Bangs Thorpe,   W. H. Hoffman,   Charles Loring Elliot,   Ralph & James Earl.

Benjamin West in England with his Colonial-American students.

        Benjamin West

Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania in 1738. He became a self taught portrait and historical painter in Philadelphia. He painted tavern signs in his early days, and perhaps a fire bucket or two. A patron helped him go on the Grand Tour of Europe, studying and copying artworks. He got to London by 1763 but never went back to the colonies. Many of the next generation of American oil painters made trips to England to study with him.

At least eight of his American students went on to paint for local Fire Companies. It was an achievement to be chosen for such a job and it put one's work in front of the entire community. At a fireman's ball the engine would be displayed and admired for it's mechanical and aesthetic attributes. This was the height of technology and sophistication.

Below are some paintings from the late 1700s by Benjamin West.

The first oil paintings (after flowers) to appear on engines were portraits of the heroes of the Revolutionary War. Historical paintings of unique battles and local events were also ordered by the early firefighters. Famous paintings were reproduced by fancy painters of all skill levels. Polite Artists would be commisioned to repaint one of their popular art works on the panel of a hand engine. Engravings of famous paintings were collected by artists and used as references for their own works, on canvas or on an engine panel. Below are samples of work by artists that painted on fire engine panels. Many images are of engine panels that have survived.

        Thomas Sully

Thomas Sully studied with Benjamin West in England. Sully is known to have painted on buckets, parade hats, helmets and panels for fire engines. The fire engine panel below is of the Marquis de Lafayette.

        John Trumbull

John Trumbull was a prodigy, attending Harvard at age 15. He joined the Revolutionary Army and became one of George Washington's advisers. He left the army and studied with Benjamin West in England during most of the war. Trumbull returned to the new nation and documented the founding fathers and historical events. Trumbull received commissions from fire companies and reproduced his popular art works on engine panels.

Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull. The oil painting on canvas is at left and a fire engine panel on the right shows the same composition, also by Trumbull.

        Matthew Pratt

Matthew Pratt painted a picture of Benjamin West's studio in England. Matthew and several other American art students are gathered for instruction in European portrait painting techniques.

        Ralph Earl & Ralph E. W. Earl

The Earl family contained three of the earliest portrait painters (not named Anonymous) in the American colonies. They painted on fire buckets and parade hats as a steady source of income. Ralph and his son studied with Benjamin West and returned to paint hundreds of portraits of 18th century Americans.

        Charles Loring Elliott

Charles Loring Elliot was another early portrait painter. He also was a student of Benjamin West.

        Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale had a family of artists and scientists. They started one of the first art schools in the colonies. They also had one of the first museums on the continent. Below is a self-portrait and a painting of his family.

C. W. Peale at his site uncovering one of the first Mastodon skeletons in the western hemisphere.

        John Archibald Woodside

John Woodside worked for several engine companies in Philadelphia. A few of his panels remain, though the engines do not.

        John Wesley Jarvis

        Henry Inman

        John Quidor

        Charles Peale Polk

        Jacob Eichholtz

        Charles Codman

Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully on the left, and copied by Charles Codman on the right.

        William Sidney Mount

        David Rent Etter

        Samuel Lancaster Gerry

        David Bustill Bowser

        Joseph Hoffman Johnson

"Art inspires, produces an unwillingness to settle for what we have and a desire for something better. It is the product and producer of creative activity, change; it is essential for continuous development."
        Russell L. Ackoff

Norman Rockwell