This month The Filson is celebrating the publication of a new portrait book by Estill Curtis Pennington, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920. This book is a comprehensive overview, encompassing both a cultural chronology and biographies of significant portrait artists. For anyone deeply affected by either art, history, or both, Lessons in Likeness offers fascinating insights.
One notable practice mentioned in this book was that of commissioning a portrait artist to paint a picture of a deceased loved one. The painter would usually rely on previous likenesses, such as a daguerreotype, although in some cases the subject’s abandoned earthly coil would function as the artist’s model.
One example of this method is the painting “Interior with Portraits” by Thomas LeClear, done in 1865 (hung in the Smithsonian American Art Museum). This painting was commissioned by an elder brother for two of his departed siblings. As Pennington notes, “there are as many layers to the painting as there is clutter in the studio.” The figures of the two deceased subjects are posed in the middle of the composition in front of a painted landscape, so that their photograph may be taken by the photographer on the right. Portraits hung on the wall peek out over the landscape backdrop, playful reminders that this painting, too, is only a likeness. The photographer carefully focuses the camera, intent on capturing the best image of these two children. The painting is both a vivid rendering of the two deceased children and a lively meditation on the juxtaposition of photography and portrait painting.
Another painting of this type is “Marie Jane Andrew” by Joseph Mason, done in 1841 (hung in the Indianapolis Museum of Art). This portrait was commissioned by Marie’s parents after her sudden death and offers striking details. Apparently Mason’s father was a bookseller, so the textbooks included in the painting may be an allusion to this. Also, the book on top of the stack bears the title “Birds with Coloured Engravings,” an apparent reference to Audubon. A mysterious boy looks out from his own portrait, on the left. Marie herself is brought back to glowing life, her almond eyes steadily assessing the viewer.
Pennington offers many more insights into portrait painting in Lessons in Likeness. The Filson is holding a reception honoring the book’s publication on Thursday, November 11, which all are welcome to attend. There are other events as well, including Gallery Tours of portraits included in the book. Check www.filsonhistorical.org for more details.