Pictures within pictures: Photographs of American folk paintings, 1840-1880

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.

Early photographs of Ameri­can folk paintings constitute a unique archive of works by both recognized and unknown artists,1 frequently even preserving a visual record of otherwise unknown paintings. A large number of early daguerreotypists practiced this lucra­tive work at a time when photography afforded Americans their first opportunity to have accurate copies of works of art, especially much desired copies of portraits of family members lost to death or distance.2 Largely overlooked until now, these copy images vary greatly in quality and interest, from mere duplicates to works of art in their own right. Between 1840 and 1860 most were produced by three photographic methods-as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, each of which produced a single copy. By 1860, negative-based cartes-de-visite, in­expensive and readily available in multiples, effectively wiped out the earlier techniques for copy images.

  • Fig. 1. Young woman posed with Wil­liam Matthew Prior’s Baby in Blue, c. 1845. Sixth-plate daguerreotype. David A. Schorsch collection.



  • Fig. 8. Frame with six daguerreotypes, American, c. 1855. Sixth plate daguerre­otype. Private collection. 



  • Fig. 9. Daguerreotypes of a woman and her three children holding a miniature portrait by Rufus Porter (1792-1884), c. 1847. Sixth plate daguerreo­types, cased together. David A. Schorsch collection.



Surviving advertisements, broadsides, trade cards, and labels document that photographers from itinerant practitioners to the most fa­mous studios in major cities offered copy work. The broadside of itinerant Con­necticut photographer E. S. Hayden, for example, proclaims: “Splendid Daguerreotype Miniatures, Taken in Every Style, / Paintings and Engravings Accurately Copied.”3 Likewise, a label from M. S. Lamprey’s Daguerreian Saloon in Manchester, New Hampshire, noted, “Particular attention paid to copying pictures and satisfaction guaranteed.”4 In 1847 the pioneering African-American photographer Glenalvin J. Goodridge (1829-1867) of York, Pennsylvania, advertised “Copies made from Paintings, Daguerreotypes, and Pictures of all kinds,”5 and the Plumbe National Daguerreian Gallery, a chain of studios from Maine to Iowa, offered “Copying and all that pertains to the Art done at Low Prices.”6 Mathew Brady’s National Gallery of Daguerreotypes in New York City advertised a specific depart­ment “arranged for copying paintings, da­guerreotypes, engravings, statuary, &c,” in which “the light instruments have been ex­pressly designed for this purpose,”7 and in Boston Southworth and Hawes offered “cop­ies of portraits, paintings, and painted miniatures, in oil or water colors, upon canvass, metal, wood, ivory or paper. We can copy any of these that can be copied by daguerreo­type, and often do well what cannot be done at all elsewhere.”8

The career paths of many promising and seasoned portrait painters, both the self-taught and the academically trained, were altered by the introduc­tion of photography. Indeed, as a young man, Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808-1901), who later joined Albert Sands Southworth (1811-1894) to form Southworth and Hawes, originally aspired to become a painter: “I purchased books, colors, and brushes, and commenced the study of art. I practiced miniature painting on ivory, likewise portraits in oil, landscapes etc., with no teacher but my books. About this time-1840-the excite­ment of the discovery of the daguerreotype took place; and some specimen of it which I saw in Boston changed my course entirely. I gave up painting and commenced daguerreotyping in 1841.”9 (That said, Southworth and Hawes’s ad­vertisement quoted above also includes the follow­ing statement: “One of the partners being a practiced portrait painter in oil colors, can offer color daguerreotypes to imitate not only outlines, but the color of the original portraits or miniatures.”)

Many portrait painters saw opportunity and readily embraced the new photo­graphic technology while others put down their paintbrushes and changed occupations. An unknown number of folk painters, including the well-known Erastus Salisbury Field, took up the new medium themselves,10 bringing with them both their skills in composing portraits in the well-established vernacular style and a familiarity with painting techniques that they could apply directly to a photograph. Frequently using water or oils as a binder, they used powdered pigments to color photographs with paints that varied con­siderably in viscosity, from highly transparent to opaque.11 Most frequently, tinting was applied to cheeks and faces, clothing, jewelry, accessories, and backdrops, but folk painters often used pigments more liberally than other artists, sometimes over the entire surface of a photograph. For example, coloring attributed to Field transformed a conven­tional ambrotype of a small boy into an abstracted likeness that is more painting than photograph and clearly shows Field’s unmistakable style and technique (Fig. 3).

The daguerreotype copy of a watercolor portrait of a young girl by Jane Anthony Davis has been greatly enhanced by delicately tinted vibrant pink hues in the face and dress (Fig. 7). In the hands of a less sensitive colorist, the charm of the original could easily have been obliterated.  

Early photographs and the folk paintings de­picted in them seldom remain together, making surviving sets such as the miniature watercolor portrait of about 1845 by Mrs. Moses B. Russell (Clarissa Peters) paired with its hand-colored copy daguerreotype of the exact same size a rarity (Fig. 6). Occasionally works long separated are brought back together. In 2012 a watercolor portrait of about 1830 identified as Deacon John Searle of Hill, New Hampshire, was reunited with its copy daguerreotype of about 1845 (Figs. 4, 5), and an ambrotype made of the daguerreotype.12

It seems likely that many, if not most, of these copy photographs were made to memorialize recently deceased family members, a purpose em­phasized in an undated broadside from Button’s Daguerreotype Studio: “Copies taken of portraits and miniatures of deceased persons, or those living at a distance thereby enabling more than one fam­ily to be in possession of distant (friends) or rela­tives.”13 While in the tradition of postmortem photography, the familiar depictions from portraits painted in life may have been preferable to the harsh realities of photographs taken right after death.

A small number of composed photographic portraits attempt to reunite families visu­ally by posing living subjects with like­nesses of their departed kin. The pair of da­guerreotypes cased together in Figure 9 depicts a mother and her three young children about 1847. Tenderly displayed in both is a miniature water­color portrait of a young man, presumably their recently deceased husband and father, by Rufus Porter. The daguerreotype in Figure 1 portrays a mother dressed in mourning beside a likeness of her child painted by William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), the original of which is now in the National Gallery of Art (Fig. 2). As is common, the photograph shows the original painting in reverse. Figure 10, however, represents an instance where the photographer used a reversing prism or mirror to make a positive image, here of a watercolor memorial of about 1838 for Mary Perkins Dorr and her daughter Mary Lucretia Dorr. This option, which would have been avail­able from accomplished photographers at an additional cost, assured that the inscription on the tomb was readable for posterity.

Figure 11, also likely a memorial, is a hand-colored ambrotype copy of about 1855 to 1860 of a miniature portrait of a young woman of about 1830 within an oval border of delicately plaited human hair. Woven human hair symbolized eternity, and was frequently used in mourning jewelry or preserved as keepsakes, a practice popular well into the age of photography.14

In addition to single portraits, surviving ex­amples include such composite works as the daguerreotype in Figure 8, which shows six fam­ily portraits arranged scrapbook-like in a wooden wall frame of a type designed expressly to display daguerreotypes. In addition to three conven­tional daguerreotype portraits, the frame held photographs of a hollow-cut silhouette, a pair of oil portraits hanging on a wall, and a “second generation” duplicate of an earlier daguerreotype. 

While many photographs of folk art were prob­ably intended as a way to remember loved ones, others clearly were not. For example, the deli­cately tinted daguerreotype of about 1846 in Figure 12 is a rare example depicting a folk artist with his work. It captures the pride of the uniden­tified painter, who holds a brush in one hand while presenting his view of the west front of the United States Capitol.15

Other examples include a series of photographs of ship portraits presumably made for commercial purposes, such as the visual documentation of the paintings and/or of the vessels depicted, or pos­sibly as advertising for an artist seeking additional commissions.16 Typical is a daguerreotype of an oil painting of the Senator, a New York-built steamboat that carried eastern gold prospectors to California in 1850 (Fig. 13).17

Sometimes surviving images raise unanswered questions. For instance, whose likeness made a fire-damaged watercolor portrait worthy of a daguerreotype copy (Fig. 16)? Why was an oth­erwise common calligraphic drawing important enough to be photographed and who was W. K. Jamison, its maker (Fig. 14)? Does the water­color portrait of a young woman wearing a bon­net by Samuel A. Shute still survive (see Fig. 15)?   

Overall, nineteenth-century photographs of American folk paintings provide us with a rich vi­sual treasury. No matter how significant they are as art historical documents, however, most should be seen for their original purpose, as touchstones of memory, as so poignantly expressed in an advertise­ment for Newburgh, New York, daguerreotypists Walker and Horton: “Pictures thus secured are pre­cious; and we wear them to our heart.”18

DAVID A. SCHORSCH, a collector since childhood, has been a dealer in American antiques for more than thirty-five years. Since 1995 he has been affiliated with Eileen M. Smiles.

1 Copy images exist of paintings by nu­merous identified folk painters, includ­ing, in addition to those discussed in this article and among many others: Ruth Henshaw Bascom, Zedekiah Belknap, Orlando Hand Bears, John Brewster Jr., Horace Bundy, Joseph Good­hue Chandler, Justus Dalee,Ralph Earl, James Sanford Ellsworth, Jacob Maentel, Sheldon Peck, Robert Peckham, Ammi Phillips, Ruth W. Shute, Royal Brewster Smith, Joseph Whiting Stock, Susan C. Waters, and Micah Williams.  2 An exception is Julian Wolff’s “Daguerreotypes as Folk Art,” The Clarion, America’s Folk Art Magazine, vol. 11, no. 4 (Fall 1986), pp. 18-24.  3 Private collection.  4 Collection of the author.  5 Ad­vertisement for Goodridge’s Daguerreian Establishment in York Democratic Press, July 27, 1847, illustrated in John Vincent Jezier­ski, Enterprising Images: The Good­ridge Brothers, African-American Photographers, 1847-1922 (Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Mich., 2000),  p. 25.  6 Trade card of Plumbe National Daguerre­ian Gallery, collection of the author.  7 Advertisement in Doggett’s New York City Directory for 1850-1851, reproduced at http://da­ 8 Advertisement in Bos­ton Directory for the Year 1851…, p. 33. 9 “Stray Leaves from the Diary of the Oldest Professional Photographer in the World, a short autobiography of Josiah Hawes,” Photo-Era, vol. 16 (Febru­ary 1906), transcribed at  10 Mary Black, Erastus Salisbury Field 1805-1900 (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass., 1984), p. 35.  11 See Cara Johnston, “Hand Coloring of Nineteenth Century Photographs,” The Cochi­neal, at https://www.ischool.utexasedu/~cochinea.  12 The portrait is attributed to a “Mr Willson” based on its similarities to a like­ness of Barnard Stratton of Amherst, New Hampshire, inscribed “Amherst, September, the 16. 1822. Drawn by Mr. [illegible] Willson. [illegible], N.H.” (il­lustrated in Paul S. D’Ambrosio and Charlotte M. Emans, Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association [New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1987], pp. 162-163).  13 Formerly in the collection of Matthew Isenberg.  14 See Robert Shaw, “United as This Heart You See: Memories of Friendship and Family,” in Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Amer­icana, ed. Jane Katcher, David A. Schorsch, and Ruth Wolfe (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006),  pp. 85-101.  15 Identifica­tion as the United States Capitol as it may have appeared in 1839 was made by the art historian Bates Lowry in a letter dated Oc­tober 1, 2000, collection of the author.  16 See Laura Lauben­thal, “Early Photographs of American Folk Art,” American Folk Art@Cooperstown, January 28, 2012, at  17 Another oil of the Senator was painted in New York c. 1849 by John (1815-1856) and James Bard (1815-1897); see Mariners’ Museum in collaboration with Anthony J. Pelu­so, The Bard Brothers, Painting America Under Steam and Sail (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997), pp. 19, 170.  18 Advertise­ment for Walker and Horton, Newburgh Excelsior, November 9, 1849, p. 3.