Another view

Rob Cassetti talks about the change in opera when it had competition. Opera was challenged for audiences by the advent of the motion picture. Movies pushed Puccini, for example, to create a big “The Girl of the Golden West” (La fanciulla del West)—creating big, live music that could not be replicated in a movie theater. New technology drove art to change…putting movies on one path, and forcing the traditional medium to change—to keep audiences and to stay relevant. This is the case of illustration—-and the whole schism around traditional media and digital…with digital being poo-poo’ed for not being “real” or legitimate. Technology challenges the status quo—and those either adapt or move aside. Technology may not subsume the traditional—but it does challenge it.

To that, I was plugging away at looking at Ammi Phillips (April 24, 1788 – July 11, 1865) work and discovered in a “no duh” moment that he was working when the first daguerrotypes came on the scene while he was painting (the last 25 years). This creates an interesting time— a blend—when technology, technique, and art purpose can shift due to a new media—a new availability to create images. One can have an oil painting reflecting tradition, wealth, and privilege which would associate you with like people or have a daguerrotype made—showing you “in the moment” with out romanticism, with no softening. A daguerrotype was a singular image like a painting, but very portable and very real. Lively, living breathing people.

Interestingly, as I looked at the Library of Congress pages— daguerrotypes showed not only living people, but people who smiled, laughed and who had joy in others (pairs of children, groups of sisters). Having a daguerrotype made was something that was a democratic process— with every shape, size, age, race, background and the Library of Congress' collection brought that home while scrolling though all the images. These images show what these people really looked like, how they chose to show themselves—unvarnished—from images of dentists pulling teeth to sweet brothers holding hands.

Clark sisters, five women, three-quarter length portraits, all facing front
Grandmother and aunts of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. Digital Id cph 3d02003 // . Library of Congress Control Number 2004664300

I thought I would go grab a selection of women’s images from the Library of Congress’ online collection to see how a woman might portray herself in a daguerrotype versus the staid portraits that were frozen in time and romanticized by the limner, Ammi Phillips. Could there be clues from a fashion standpoint? layout? design? connection with the viewer? Love Phillips, but let’s just look at what else was happening….even beyond Matthew Brady and his game-changing work and vision.

Here we are (selection was made from images 1840-1849)— and what a group of lovely, real women we have in front of us….women we might know today —work with, socialize except for the clothes that they are wearing and the impossibly time-consuming hair. Many of these wormen are connecting directly with the photographer showing their inner self either with confidence like the awesome Clark sisters, the coy flirtiness of the lady (third row/left), to the insecurity of the picture taking and her youth (center top). These are people who want to be seen, to be captured in the moment—perhaps as a present for a family member, friend or love. These were women with edges, with inperfections, with wit and personality and were not icons of “nice girls”. How did Ammi Phillips respond to this? How did he address this freshness, this change, these portable portraits that were a window into the sitter’s life—many showing similar poses (proper ladies with books, caps) but not romanticized—complete with physical imperfections and souls showing through their eyes.

Technology changed portraiture. People continued to have their portraits painted, but having an option, a more democratic option which was more affordable, portable and a true window into a living person also had it’s appeal. There were couples together, babies together, and families together. There is a daguerrotype of a father and his sons with the bible. There were many, many images of black people—who took advantage of this shift. No conclusions here…just observations on how daguerrotypes touched a much wider swath of people—and captured more of the reality of the time.

Ammi Phillip's bonnet

I am doing a bit of research on “primitive” American portraits and enjoying jumping in with both feet. I was looking at limner painters and found Ammi Phillips ( April 24, 1788 – July 11, 1865), also referred also as the Kent Limner . I love the formats of the time that were de rigueur and am am collecting images to better understand and categorize them. Unfortunately, I will be torturing you with my findings.

Philllps was born in Connecticut and starting painting when he was young. Wikipedia says:

“He enters the documentary record as an artist in 1809, at the age of 21, with advertisements in both The Berkshire Reporter[3] and a Pittsfield, Massachusetts tavern[4] proclaiming his talent for painting "correct likenesses," distinguished by “perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day.” Although Phillips also advertised his talent for "fancy painting, silhouettes, sign and ornamental painting,"[3] he soon specialized as a portraitist. His work satisfied the local standard, and within two years Phillips was receiving regular portrait commissions from community leaders in this area of western Massachusetts.[3]

I find it interesting that he comes from a decorative background, silhouetting and stylish painting. Phillips was a practitioner of an expected style with his artistry being a plus. His figures reflect that paintings were made to be sn to illustrate how a member of the household would be remembered as a legacy as a justifying the privilege they chose to embrace.

Detail of the bonnet.

Detail of the bonnet.

Part of Phillips’ props “kit of parts” included this highly ornate, organza, embroidered and beribboned bonnet that was placed on many customers for their portraits. What a silly, over the top bonnet—on all sorts of ladies from young, to old—with the bonnet telling us that this woman has married well (married women wore inside bonnets), and she spends her time doing lady’s work—reading, needlework. You will also note a common collar in three of the portraits—perhaps also pre-painted or part of the artist’s prop closet? The older lady (the first image) has a decorative ribbon which shows up in other portraits Phillips has painted.

As a limner, it almost suggests that these paintings were already set up in advance, and only the faces were painted live. Limners were itinerant painters, so to have pre-painted paintings made the transaction quicker as the faces were painted in…and on you went (leaving the paint to dry). Just a thought.

I am looking at other models to better understand this particularly American period of decorative art, portraiture and design. This seems to click with all sorts of things I love to bits.