Born in Hampton, Connecticut, John Brewster was a deaf-mute born to Dr. John Brewster and Mary Durkee, his first wife. The son was raised in a highly cultured family with seven brothers and sisters. His mother died when he was seventeen years old, and the father then married Ruth Avery.
Brewster worked successfully as an itinerant portrait painter, especially of children, along the New England coast. He worked extensively in Maine, where his brother, Royal, moved in 1795, taking John Brewster with him. There he met the Cutts famiy, who were local 'gentry' and for whom he did life size standing portraits "of the dourly reproving Col. and Mrs. Thomas Cutts, pictures that bring Brewster, in spirit, close to his Calvinist roots and suggest why he so often seems more an 18th than a 19th-century artist." (Cotter). In Maine, he also did many portraits of children including identical twins, Clarissa and Mary Jane Nowell.
He advertised in newspapers, setting prices of fifteen dollars for regular-size portraits and five dollars for miniatures. Three of his better-known portraits are of his half sisters, with one of them likely a posthumous likeness as the girl, Sophie, died at age five. It appears that he did not paint landscapes by themselves, but he did paint them as backdrops on his canvases to accentuate his child figures or as window scenes behind adult portraits. He learned to communicate through writing, but at age fifty-one, enrolled in the newly opened Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons.
His portraits reveal a great deal of sensitivity towards the subject, likely a result of his extraordinary ability to concentrate. He was credited with "exceptionally fine brushwork" and facial expressions "almost photographic in intensity . . .one feels that the total absence of audible communication between him and the people around him rendered him uniquely sensitive to the distinctive personality of each sitter." (Little 21)
His home in his last years was Buxton, Maine, where he lived with family and then purchased 80 acres of land in 1833. By 1817, he had stopped painting in order to enter the Asylum for the Deaf and learn sign language.
He died in 1854 and is buried in the Tory Hill Cemetery in Bluxton Lower Corners near the old family home of his brother.
In 2006, curators of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City organized a one-person exhibition of his work, "A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster". In the spring of 2007, the exhibition travels to the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Included in the exhibition are portraits that Brewster did of his family, some of his earliest paintings, and ones that exemplify the artists unrelenting commitment to reality: "the father broad-faced, affable and distracted; the mother tense, focused, gazing straight out at the viewer. The Old World frills that spell 'classy' are in place. The subjects are framed by red swag curtains; a window behind them gives onto a parklike vista. But the table they sit at is a chunky drop-leaf, as ungrand as can be. Dr. Brewster wears Puritanical black-and-white; his wife, a plain brown dress. No stylists have had their way with them: a large mole on Ruth Brewster's chin is right there for the world to see."(Cotter)
Holland Cotter, "Intense Visions by a Painter Who Couldn't Hear", New York Times, 10/06/2006, B30
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Nina Fletcher Little, Essay in American Folk Painters of Three Centuries