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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Portrait: The Unknown Sitter - African American Portraits of the 1860s-1880s

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The Unknown Sitter - African American Portraits of the 1860s-1880s

As the prices for photographic prints declined through the nineteenth century portraits became available for everybody. Studios proliferated within even the smallest centers of population and itinerant photographers travelled in wagons and by train to seek business opportunities wherever they could. With paper-based photographs, such as salted paper or albumen prints, information on the sitter could be written directly upon the paper if required but with those on glass (ambrotypes) or metal (Daguerreotypes, tintypes otherwise known as ferrotypes, melainotypes or Neff plates) a label had to be affixed or the details scratched onto the plate. This was rarely done and so by far the majority of Daguerreotype and tintype portraits are of unknown sitters. Without a knowledge of the sitter or the photographer it can be difficult to establish dates or historical context to advance scholarship.
To raise awareness of this issue this online exhibition shows a collection of portraits of African American sitters that were presumably taken between the 1860s and the 1880s in the United States. We welcome these images being shared to assist in the identification of any of the sitters, photographers, agents and painters involved.
Julie L. Mellby -
Graphic Arts Library, Princeton University Library
Alan Griffiths -
Stanley B. Burns, MD (Executive Director, The Burns Archive) has kindly provided additional information based upon his book Forgotten marriage, the painted tintype & the decorative frame, 1860-1910: a lost chapter in American portraiture (New York: Burns Press, Burns Collection, 1995) that illuminates how painted portraits of this type were created.
Except in rare cases where an original identified photograph has been kept along with the coloured portrait, normally within a family, the sitters in these portraits are almost impossible to identify. The reason for this is that smaller original photographs, sometimes accompanied with a lock of hair and even more rarely with a printed form specifying how the final portrait should appear, were passed to agents who delivered them to the artist who would create the final portrait. The final portrait was normally larger than the original and this was done by making a photographic enlargement that was then painted. In the case where the painted portrait was framed the back of the frame sometimes had written details on the sitter but over the years as the subject of the painting was forgotten the frame was perceived to have a greater value than the portrait and the two became separated. As soon as this happened the chances of identifying any of the parties involved became increasingly remote.
In the article by Scott Robson "Now hold it" - People and portrait photography, p.48-62 in "Social History and Photography" Proceedings of a symposium held at the Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia (23-23 March 1985), (Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1990) there is an the interesting surviving piece of evidence from Nova Scotia in Canada. An agent Alfred L. Ethrington who collected orders for painted portraits in the Annapolis Valley took tintypes and CDVs and wrote down the customer requests for coloring on forms. These were placed in envelopes and passed to Allister Harlow in Milton, Queens County who copied them, enlarged them, and printed them faintly on paper as a guide and then painted them. The envelopes sometimes included a lock of hair of the sitter along with a detailed form. A rare surviving example of such a form from around 1895 is in the collection of the Nova Scotia Museum (N-14,628). 



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