ohn Brewster was a famous deaf American. I’m going to be putting several of these little bios up because I think it’s just so interesting how people lived and made a name for themselves, hearing and deaf alike. As this is an American Sign Language blog, these people will all be somehow connected with ASL (I know, it’s a novel concept.) I’m starting with John Brewster because he was there at the start, and if anyone has any ideas for other deaf ASL speakers, I would love to have input on who to profile next.
John Brewster Jr. was the grandson of William Brewster, of pilgrim fame, and was the only deaf person in his family. John was born deaf in the year 1766, and probably learned to communicate with his family through “Home Signs”, or signs that have been made up by imediate family and don’t translate to outsiders. His father was a well-known and important physician in his home town, and education was highly emphasized at home. Most of John’s brothers went to medical school like their father. Because John couldn’t go to medical school, he was apprenticed to a famous painter named Joseph Steward, where he learned to paint Folk style portraits. Because John didn’t read or write at this point in time, we don’t really have much record of what he did or how he felt about it, but we can guess.
In the late 1700s- early 18oos, there was a vast network of painters who would roam the countryside and paint likenesses of the upper middle class, the rich, and their families. Because these painters often hadn’t been to formal art schools, they charged a lot less for their paintings than portrait painters in Europe did. While these paintings weren’t exact realistic copies of everyday life, they served to give people a stylistic snapshot of their family before the snapshot was invented. There was an actual circuit that many painters traveled, visiting the same towns and staying in the same hotels. While we know that John traveled this circuit a little bit, generally he preferred to stay in the familiar territory of Southern Maine and Massachusetts.
As soon as John gained a little notoriety, he began to be commissioned to paint the likenesses of certain families. He would stay with that family for a few days, paint everyone in the house, and run an advertisement in the local paper to attract more clientele while he was in town. Sometimes, instead of staying with the family he was painting, John would stay with friends in the same area. It’s thought that his friends would write the advertisements out for him and deliver them to the local paper, because John couldn’t write, and the advertisements were frequently inconsistent. Sometimes they touted John as a deaf curiosity – his paintings are so great that you would never believe he was deaf. Other times there’s no mention of his deafness at all, but only the quality of his work. It’s thought that he used some combination of limited writing and pantomime to work out with his clients the poses they wanted and his fees. We know by the sheer volume of clients and his growing local fame that he had no insurmountable problems communicating with the people he painted.
John was considered one of the top painters in New England at this time, and his paintings read like a who’s who of the region for four decades. Many of his paintings show unrealistic perspectives, with children being taller than trees and mountains in the background and other scenes not appearing quite right. Whether this was by design or not, we can’t tell. He was very well known for painting wild-haired children in gauzy nightgowns with serious expressions, but also painted many somber men and women in dark clothing. We know that he would do smaller paintings of people from the chest up for a smaller fee, and it’s believed that at one point he painted canvases of a bunch of bodies without heads and then added the heads of his clients to the pre-painted picture for an even smaller fee. These chest-up paintings are some of John’s best work, as there are no odd perspectives, and his ability to paint expressions is impressive.
In 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in Hartford Connecticut. Among the seven students in the first class was John Brewster. The average age of the other students was 19, while John was 51. For the first time in his life, John learned to read and write, and also to communicate in sign language with other deaf people. He finally got the education that was so important to his family. John stayed several years at the school, longer than the actual course he took, and we assume by this that he was enjoying being in a community of people he could communicate with. When John left the school in 1820, he didn’t keep in touch with anyone he met at school. While this may seem strange, he probably didn’t really have a lot in common with the other students who were so much younger than he was. John went right back into the hearing world and continued painting as he had before. His paintings after he attended the school seem to have a greater emphasis on the eyes of the sitter, and less attention is given to the background.
1n 1837, the Daguerreotype was invented and many folk painters lost their source of income. Photos were less expensive and more realistic than portraiture ever could be. Like so many artists of the time, John found it harder and harder to find clients. In the late 1830s, John moved in with his brother and best friend in Buxton, Maine, where all record of his life ends. We do know he spent the rest of his life in a family home surrounded by nieces and nephews. John died in 1854, and is buried in Buxton.
John Brewster lived most of his life in a hearing world with no structured way to communicate with those around him, even other deaf people. Though his life must have been hard at times, he left behind hundreds of beautiful paintings that show us how his intelligence and attention to detail made him great.