An Incomplete History of Robert Feke: Colonial Portrait Artist

Thu, 01/19/2017 - 3:37pm -- mfarias

Isaac Royall Family (1741) by Robert Feke

Robert Feke was a well-know colonial American portrait artist who worked in Newport, Boston, and Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. While he left behind several physical records of his life, namely his portraits, there is still a lot that is unknown about him, particularly the details of his early life before he became known as a painter. Feke was born around 1707 in Oyster Bay, New York and is believed to have left Oyster Bay in 1731. His first dated painting is Isaac Royall Family, which includes the note, “Finisht Sept. 15, 1741 by Robert Feke.” Some historians believe there were a number of family portraits done by Feke, possibly including earlier works, which perished in a fire at the Feke homestead in Oyster Bay in 1768. A painting done by Feke of a Levinah Cock, is believed to survive from 1730, a portrait of his sister’s child that is in possession of the family today, but this is all the evidence of earlier work that survives. It is believed that he may have learned the techniques of painting in the 1730s in New York City, before leaving New York and settling in Newport. 

 Colonial & Federal Portraits at Bowdoin College (1966)

The majority of the physical records of Feke’s life are dated after the 1741 painting. On September 23, 1742, he married Eleanor Cozzens and the town records of Newport list them as both being of the town. In 1744, a Scottish physician by the name of Dr. Alexander Hamilton visited Newport and recorded in his diary an account of being taken to meet Feke. He wrote, “He carried me to see one Feykes, a painter, the most extraordinary genius I ever knew, for he does pictures tollerably well by the force of genius, having never had any teaching” (Colonial & Federal Portraits at Bowdoin College, 32). While these records can confirm that the Robert Feke living in Newport was a painter, there is still little evidence for how he got his start as an artist.

Feke's grandson, John Feke Townsend, penned the most fantastical explanation for Feke’s artistic experience in the November 15, 1859 issue of the Newport Daily News. Townsend wrote that his grandfather, “was absent on voyages abroad several years, in what capacity is unknown, in one of which, he became a prisoner and was carried into Spain. There he procured paints and brushes and while in prison he whiled away much of his time in rude paintings, which on his release he sold, and so procured the means of returning to his own country” (Colonial, 35). When his daughters were married, Feke was listed in the records as a “mariner,” which would explain his having been out at sea and in a position to be captured. Many art scholars have long thought that Feke must have been exposed to art in London in order to incorporate the current styles in his own, so his spending some time at sea would make sense. It is difficult to know for sure whether he was ever imprisoned in Spain and whether he spent such time, but during his time in the colonies, he was quite successful and talented.


Reverend Thomas Hiscox (1745) by Robert Feke

 Henry Collins (c. 1749) by Robert Feke

Over the next several years he painted wealthy residents of Newport, Philadelphia, and Boston. At the Redwood Library, we have a collection of eight paintings by various artists donated by the descendants of Countess László Sechényi (1886-1985), a daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843-1899). It was because of Countess Sechényi that the portraits remain together as a group in Newport and many of the portraits display people who were connected with the history of the Redwood, so it was decided that the library would serve as an appropriate home for the collection. The collection includes four portraits done by Robert Feke: Henry Collins, Ebenezer Flagg Sr., Mary Ward Flagg, Reverend Thomas Hiscox. These portraits were all completed between 1745-1750, which is the last record of work done by Feke. The last note of him on record is his attendance at a wedding in Newport in 1751. Some biographers believe he died in Barbados or Bermuda around that time as he had family down there, but there is not much evidence. Regardless of where he wound up, or even how he got there, Feke served as a standard of Colonial American portrait art for many years to come.