Sunday, April 14, 2019

Portrait of 18C Young American Women

c 1757 John Wollaston 1733-1767 Probably Elizabeth Dandridge Colonial Willimsburg Foundation

Barbara Luck of Colonial Williamsburg tells us that images of loved ones have universal appeal, but portraits of children occupy a special niche among our tangible treasures. Late 18C & early 19C parents commissioned likenesses of their offspring for the same reasons that prompt us to bedeck our youngsters in Sunday-best attire & 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, & 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 & format of the likeness, & the materials employed. Oil paintings, like this one, were invariably more expensive than works on paper. Their pigments & canvas or wooden supports cost more than paper & the media used on it. Tradition & 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- & half-length portraits gained favor as popular attention focused increasingly on sitters' personalities & 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 & other doting adults found endearing.