Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pictures in the Parlor

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 30, 2013

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I was already seeing shows that closed in June - this is the last one at the moment, so next week I'll be onto July closings.  Of course, the Smithsonian or National Gallery could always add a show, but right now, I feel as if I'm racing through the year!

This exhibit is different than every other art show I've attended, in that all of the pieces are done by unknown artists.  It's a collection of photographs that middle class people in the 19th century had in their living rooms (parlors), taking the place of painted portraits owned by wealthy Americans.

This represented a democratization of home decor; in the colonial period only the very wealthy could afford to have their pictures painted.  By the 1840s, the price of photographs (and their precursors) had dropped to the point that the less well-to-do could put up pictures of themselves, their children or their homes.  On display are some hand-colored photographs - reminiscent of the early photos I saw in "Faking It."  Some were also clearly meant to look like oil paintings, taking the mimicry of the upper classes a step further.  Many of them really did look like oil paintings; one wonders if the guests of the owners were fooled.

One thing I noticed was the bored or puzzled looks on the faces of the children - not unlike many photos you see of modern kids!  You can almost hear them saying, "Mom, when will this be over so I can go play?"  The photo pictured above is a good example.

Perhaps my favorite photograph was one entitled "House with Decorated Car in Front" from 1910.  I can't improve on the title in terms of describing the subject of the photo, but I'll say the car was decorated with what looked like fringe.  It reminded me of the beaded car I saw at the American Indian museum last year.  What prompts people to decorate their cars?  I just can't imagine waking up one morning and thinking, "I know what I want to do today!  I'll put fringe all over my car."

Another part of the exhibit is dedicated to "scrapbook houses."  These can best be described as collages that young women would make out of pictures clipped from magazines.  They were meant to represent items that they would want in their homes one day.  They might feature pieces of furniture, people, musical instruments, linens, pets, flowers - anything, really that one might reasonably find in a family residence.  The idea behind this activity was to train girls to run and decorate their own homes.  Frankly, it strikes me as rather a dull way to spend an afternoon; I'd much rather read a book.

Finally, there are several examples of painted tintypes.  These are photographic images on black-lacquered iron.  They were very popular in rural areas and small towns, in the later part of the 19th century.  It was a way for the less affluent to mimic the fine portraits of the upper class.  The thing I noticed was that it was clearly not the custom for people to smile for the camera.  Every one looks terribly dour.

Verdict: An interesting show.  Nothing in comparison to the big Civil War exhibit at the American Art Museum in the same building, but an intriguing way to spend a few minutes.

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