Marcus Mote

Mote and Aesthetics

The study of aesthetics allows people to understand what a particular culture at a particular time and place deemed beautiful, successful or worthy. Aesthetics forms the core of artistic traditions. The ancient Greek aesthetic was founded upon the proportion, balance and harmony of elements. This is seen in structures such as the Parthenon and in figurative works such as Kritios Boy. We can distinguish the Greek aesthetic from say, the aesthetics of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Here, artists are concerned with a shining surface, a well-crafted, elongated head, and that all critical body parts are made visible to the viewer in their correct proportions.

What does it mean for art to be Quaker art? What is the Quaker aesthetic? Attempts have been made by Frederick Tolles, David Sox and more recently by Emma Jones Lapansky and Anne Verplanck to arrive at a clear answer. Fundamentally the Quaker aesthetic rests upon the principles of plainness, and later simplicity. Early Quakers extended this aesthetic to their clothing, wearing brown and gray outfits without ruffles, ribbons or decoration of any kind. That something was well made, though unadorned, was preferable. Meetinghouses followed the same aesthetic tenets, being made of plain wood or brick with little exterior decoration, and plain, but well-made furniture.

But not all aesthetic criteria are visible to the human eye. The Greeks held that kalon, moral beauty, was an essential ingredient in a work of art – this was mainly applied to religious architecture and statuary. The Yoruba believe that a sense of “coolness,” according to Robert Farris Thompson, helped to temper a work’s spiritual energy. vii In a manner similar to the Greeks or the Yoruba, Howard Brinton asserts that for Quakers, plainness and simplicity are related to a deeper truth, saying that this “meant the absence of all that was unnecessary.” viii This absence, this lack of superficial detail, cleared the path to God.

Portraits have a long history – extending back to ancient times. Very simply they are records of a person’s appearance. In some cultures, portraits were important legal documents used to secure marriage alliances, show social status and prestige. Portraits were originally discouraged by Quakers as a vain pursuit, but in America became popular during Colonial times. ix Like the furniture they created, their speech and religious structures, so too did their portraits adhere to Quaker aesthetic principles: truthful, life-like and faithful renderings of people in simple compositions where the sitter is the focus and takes up most of the picture plane (either frontally or in profile), clothing that reflects faith in its somber color and cut.

The individual likenesses Mote rendered generally follow this pattern. Whether in watercolor, pencil or oil, his sitters are set against a plain background. They seem to “pop” from the surface. People do not smile; their countenances straightforward and neutral. Clothing is always dark and bespeaks an adherence to utility over fashion. Sitters rendered in profile are straight-backed and stiff, their view forward. With a few exceptions there are no other objects in the portrait composition though sometimes he added the top rail of a chair. In frontal portraits the lack of other objects makes it so that sitter and the viewer have an uninterrupted visual dialogue.


The main aesthetic principle for Mote was truth, and the ways he conceptualized, and tried to capture, truth in his portraiture, are as varied and individual as the people who sat for him. Truth was for the artist many things: theological, spiritual, moral, a replication of nature, a search for a person’s true character. On a theological level, nature revealed the truth of the Almighty, and was not left to interpretation. So, too, was a person’s likeness. It had to be true to Nature to be worthy. Supporting this notion of Nature in relation to God is a quote by Martha Johns, one of Mote’s students at Turtle Creek School, “When we speak of Nature we mean the assemblage of all created beings; the earth, sun, moon and stars …All explain the wisdom of the divine Creator.” x This replication of God’s truth in nature extended to the mundane, the normal. When asked about why he included an outdoor privy and a running hog in his work Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1844, “they were there, so I had to paint them,” heeding the call of Benjamin West, who said, “…the same truth which give law to the historian should rule the painter…I want to mark the time, the place, and the people, and to do this I must abide by truth.” xi Of his portraiture, though he said that “finishing portraits is much harder than commencing one…The most difficult part is to finish and give force and color to a portrait. I try to be a truthful as possible.” xii

Integrity in word, act, deed, and in object was crucial to Quakers. In addition to portraying a person’s physiogamy with exacting fidelity, Mote believed artist’s integrity, their truth, was revealed through their art. In 1890 he wrote in “Moral Teachings of Art,”


“Can we not see the mind of an artist in his pictures? If it exhibits bravado in position – or dudishness in style and manner you will see something like it when you see the artist. A stiff haughty manner (in an artist) can be seen often a lack of honest proportion (which) denotes a moral lack in the artist. Again, where nothing is tangible or defined, a kind of go easy, etc., tells truly (a) principle a lack of integrity, sincerity, purity, charity and of faith...” xiii


--Julie May