The Historic Selfie: Some Observations about Early American Family Portraiture

The Historic Selfie: Some Observations about Early American Family Portraiture
by Jan Olandese

Today, selfies have taken over the internet. We so love to Share! The selfie stick makes this much easier than posing in the medicine cabinet mirror! We preen for the camera in front of new cars, homes, the roses out back, our town halls, and scenes from our travels. We do family selfies, too. We and our clan by the pool, at a restaurant, at a potluck, or for the annual Christmas card, in front of the fireplace, with the dog.

Our selfies are usually (but not always) cheerful and good-natured.  We beam or smirk at the camera (or share distaste with a grimace)! To deny the element of narcissism would be like not looking. We showcase ourselves and our new hair, new clothes, new shoes, vacations. We rarely stand still! We’re dining out, boating, picnicking, chasing or being chased by the dog. And so often, surrounded by our kids, our spouses, our parents.

These are self-portraits, slices of our life as we’d like others to see us. Let’s look at family portraits today and compare them to those of the late 18th century. I’ve included some examples.

It’s a whole different picture, as it turns out. These old portraits are, compared to modern group photos, like still lifes vs. action photography. The people appear stiff to the modern eye. Individuals stand out from the background like cardboard cutout props on a stage. The background is muted, the colors soft. The people seem several feet in front:  skin is often painted in whites and blued tones against warm earthy ones. The floors upon which they sit are also bright, sometimes vividly patterned.

People in these portraits appear disproportionate, flat. The heads are large for their bodies.  A reflection of the cerebral values of the Enlightenment? The eyes stare at the viewer. We see no frowns as in Victorian photographs; in fact, the couples may share faint smiles. There’s a sense of satisfaction, slightly smug?

Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth, Ralph Earl (1792), oil on canvas

Some portraits feature many books in the background, suggesting education and wealth (many in those times were illiterate). In the first portrait  they appear to be law books: these reflect that the subject, Oliver Ellsworth, was a noted attorney, a framer of the constitution, US Senator and later the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The fringed fabric, possibly draperies, implies wealth, as does the scene we see through their window: a prosperous home, farmland or plantation. Faces are painted at an angle but the eyes are deep and look one dead-on. Mrs. Ellsworth’s hat seems impossibly large. Her face and hands seem too white. He is not quite so pale. (A white complexion was valued in those days, tanning beds would have been incomprehensible in that culture. People who were tan were people who did manual outdoor labor, and in these status-oriented pictures, that wouldn’t have been a plus).

Family Portrait, Noah North (c.1830s), oil on panel

In these paintings and many others of the period, we see the woman is on the viewer’s right, the man on the left and the children either in the middle or with the woman: her department, their legacy. The man’s department as provider is separate.  Note the law books on the man’s side of the picture.

There is sometimes a scene out a window behind the sitters, a view of their prospects and property. These are substantial, important people with comparative wealth and property, the portraits say to the audience. To sum up:

1) Whiteness
2) Men and women often posed across a table from one another
3) Flatness
4) Fringed, rich-looking draperies
5) Smug/faint smiles
6) Draperies and books
7) Large heads
8) Often  the woman is on the observer’s right, the man on the left
9) Children look like small adults – their clothing is quite adult, just smaller

10) Often a window looking out on the subject’s property or symbolic of subject’s status

The portraits tell us much more than how people look: they are equally if not more about social appearance. The books are behind the man, and scrolls or a book are in his hand, not hers. She holds the child or perhaps a fan.

The Washington Family, Edward Savage (1789-1796), oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

The Washington’s portrait is different in some ways: perhaps because he was the leading citizen of the land and from a wealthy family. There are still the warm-toned draperies. The window opens to a vast river scene. The Washingtons look at each other…the viewer is irrelevant to them. The family touches maps and a globe, the land which the General/President has made American. They smile slightly at each other. They are pleased with themselves. The General’s sword is close at hand, just in case. There is a slave, whose hand is Napoleonic in pose and who is better dressed than most of the population. He is however in the shadows (in fact there was no slave, he was an add-on by the artist to demonstrate the status of this family). The entire family touches the map except for the son, who has a hand on the globe. There is a checkered floor (a chess game? strategy? Worth a shot considering the “mastery of the world” visual!) and the chair upon which Washington sits is clearly the driver’s.

These are just few points for the student of society and culture to observe contrasts and similarities, then and now. Old portraits and new seek to explore the narratives of existence, life’s stories. The technology of the digital camera is another way to paint pictures. While family portraits in the 18th century were commissioned, time-consuming and costly, the selfie of today is cheap, instant, speedy (and easily deleted!).  Are the messages so very different?  You be the judge.