Halting Time through the Illusion of Portraiture
Text by Barbara Luck
Photos by Hans Lorenz
Images of loved ones have universal appeal, but portraits of children occupy a special niche among our tangible treasures. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century parents commissioned likenesses of their offspring for the same reasons that prompt us to bedeck our youngsters in Sunday-best attire and haul them off to the photographer's, if not the portrait painter's. But higher mortality rates made earlier parents keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of life, and perhaps sharpened the sense of urgency with which they sought to halt time through the illusion of portraiture.
Portrait prices varied. Besides their inevitable tie to the prevailing economy, they also derived from the portraitist's skills, his degree of financial desperation, the size and format of the likeness, and the materials employed. Oil paintings, such as those shown in these pages, were invariably more expensive than works on paper. Their pigments and canvas or wooden supports cost more than paper and the media used on it. Tradition and fashion also dictated that oils be executed in roughly standard sizes that, compared to works on paper, were rather formidable. Few folk in cottages could afford oil portraits; they also lacked suitable display space for them. Nevertheless, the expanding dispersal of wealth in America enabled growing numbers of middle-class parents to attain their hearts' desire of an impressive oil likeness of little Mary, Charles, or Walter.
Whether that likeness was bust-, half-, three-quarter, or full-length related, to some degree, to changing tastes. Bust- and half-length portraits gained favor as popular attention focused increasingly on sitters' personalities and psyches. Yet full-length portraits of children never really went out of style. The relative immaturity of youngsters' inner natures may have been a factor, but full-length formats also emphasized children's diminutive stature, surely an aspect of their appearance that parents and other doting adults found endearing.
A young woman of elegance and pedigree, Evelyn Byrd was about eighteen when her portrait was painted ca. 1725. The straw hat and gardening tool in her lap tie her to a simple existence in nature; her satin dress connotes a comfortable life.
Charles and Mary Ann Bacon's portraits are part of a set including their parents and a sister painted by William Jennys in 1785.
The two children in this painting from Boston about 1760 show a less-polished and individual style than Jennys's.
All photographs and digital images © The Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Not for reproduction or publication.
"Portrait of the Depeyster Twins, Eva and Catherina" was painted by Depeyster Limner circa 1728 in New York. Although the children seem a bit stiff, there is evidence of movement and animation in the fabric swirling around them, the gestures of the children, the bird perched on a hand, and the lively dog.
“Portrait of Anne Byrd” by Charles Bridges was painted circa 1735 and reveals that beloved pets were part of family life in the 18th century.
“Deborah Glen” was the daughter of a wealthy army colonel who amassed a fortune and extensive landholdings. Her elaborate dress shown in this oil portrait provides tangible evidence of the family’s wealth.