In England in the early 1800s there existed a style of painting called "The Grand Manner" characterized by the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy. In effect, it was the British equivalent of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The list of Americans studying under Reynolds reads like a who's who of American painting including Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Ralph Earl, John Trumbull, Washington Allston, Rembrandt Peal, Charles Bird King, Thomas Sully, and Samual F.B. Morse. While there was no concerted effort amongst them, their general hope was to have American art receive the mantle of the European painting tradition and raise it to new heights of excellence.

Several of these artist set up studios in London and were quite successful before retuning to this country where their success stories varied greatly. Those like Allston, Morse, and others who tried to carry on the tradition of grandiose subject matter involving history painting, mythological tales, or enormous canvases even with American subject matter, were only moderately successful at best. Often upon return to the U.S. their carreers went into rapid decline. Few in America, even among the educated elite, understood such high-minded feasts of intellectual manna from the gods. However, those artists who chose use the technical prowess they'd obtained in London, and were not above painting the mainstay of American art at the time, the portrait, were often quite successful.

Among these "Grand Manner" portrait painters were the Peale's, Charles Wilson and his son Rembrandt, who were at the heart of American's first art dynasty in and around Philadelphia during the first half of the century. Thomas Sully injected a Romantic element into his portraits while John Trumbull tried his hand at architecture as well as painting. In New York, though without much success, he tried to establish an American version of the Royal Academy called the National Academy of Design. But most successful of all was Gilbert Stuart. He became something of an icon of American portraiture by whipping out paintings of the Presidents and other statesmen at an astounding rate, completing the faces in as little as two hours, often without so much as a preliminary drawing.