Paintings were the primary mode of portraiture in the 19th century, as photography was still not yet widely available. Artists of all skill levels painted portraits and it was a financially rewarding trade. The cost of commissioning a portrait made it a luxury that the majority of Americans could not afford. A portrait was often painted to document important life events such as a wedding, birthday or personal achievement.
Portraits provided a vehicle through which to “show off.” Sitters took the opportunity to wear their finest clothes, have their hair fashionably styled and adorn themselves with expensive jewelry. Portraits frequently included glimpses of domestic architecture and the richness of a home’s furnishings. These compositional choices were intentional and demonstrated the wealth and status of the sitter.
This selection of paintings on loan from the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY, features portraits of women and children. In the patriarchal society of 19th century America, women and children’s portraits reinforced the success of their male head of household. Personal objects or props held by a sitter established the family’s social class. A woman might hold a book to symbolize that she had the leisure time to acquire an education, rather than doing housework. A child might hold an exotic pet to show that the family had the financial means to purchase such a luxury. While these objects visually expressed aspects of the sitter’s identity, they also reinforced the public identity of the family and its governing patriarch.