Family portraits are rare in early 18th century British colonial America, perhaps because they were expensive & usually so large, that they required a sizable public parlor for display. Most 18th-century colonial American houses were not spacious. Family portraits are also much more complicated for the artist, and there were few artists available in colonial America early in the century. But the incidence of family portraits grew, as the number of painters & spaces in homes also grew.
Some gentlemen had family portraits painted as a sign of wealth & as a factor in gaining respect & power in the new world. The painting announced that they were important, entitled to be the natural leader in the new society. Other family paintings commemorated a specific event. Most were not painted to be tucked away for private family contemplation, but to act as a public icon or an emblematic memory for an audience larger than the immediate family. The composition of family paintings was changing throughout the 18th-century as well.
The concept of family was evolving as emerging Enlightenment ideas began to impact everyday domestic life & family values in colonial America. Slowly throughout the century, the strict partriarchal family concept was beginning to change. English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) implied that women should have greater authority in the family & the home. In portraits, artists began to display the woman on nearly the same level as the husband.
Artists began to feel that they could portray married couples as congenial companions. Painters began to portray men participating more in the rearing of their children, they were no longer just expected to be distant strict disciplinarians. Americans were beginning to believe that children needed to be loved & to play. The individual was also becoming more important in 18th-century America. Artists often used props to signify something about the talents, skills, & identities of individuals within these families. In one way or another, each of the following portraits reflects changing patriarchial values, gender relations, attitudes towards women & children, and the growing democratization of American society. But we still remember that women did not receive the right to vote in the United States until 1920.
NB For this posting I have excluded portraits of children only. Smibert's Bermuda Group and Copley's family portrait were executed immediately before or after the artist entered or exited the American colonial experience. They are so good, I just couldn't resist stretching the boundries to include them.