Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

When the Past Still Hangs in the Parlor

· November 19th, 2019 · No Comments

by Janine Yorimoto Boldt

“My Will is that none of the Pictures of what Sort Soever be Removed out of my Dwelling Hall.”

With those words, Henry Custis (ca. 1677-1733) of Northampton County, Virginia clearly stated his intention that the family portraits (and any other pictures) should remain with his house in perpetuity. Custis would be disappointed that neither his house nor his painting collection remains intact. But other families with deep colonial roots continue to live with both their pictures and their ancestral dwelling hall. Even more families have inherited family portraits but no longer live in the colonial homes their ancestors built.

While researching my dissertation on colonial Virginia portraiture, I had the privilege of visiting several private homes and collections that date to the eighteenth century. Viewing paintings in private collections is tricky. There are many works of art out there in private ownership that can inform historical scholarship and change the way scholars think about art and society. In fact, a couple of the most important paintings featured in my scholarship are privately owned and largely unknown to most historians of American art. But access is restricted and can be revoked at any time. What follows are some reflections on studying portraits in private collections.

What struck me most forcefully when I visited private homes was how family portraits continue to function as the original subjects intended. Colonial portraits had many purposes, but at least two of them were genealogical: to record likenesses for posterity and to visually remind descendants of their duty to the family. Portraits of colonial ancestors continue to hang over fireplace mantels, in the parlor, the hall, across from televisions, over couches, and in dining rooms. Successive generations have added their own portraits to the walls. Colonial rococo portraits hang alongside nineteenth-century neoclassical portraits and contemporary photographs. Current family members sit under them while posing for their own family portraits in a manner reminiscent of the portrait of Reverend Streynsham Master and His Wife, Margaret of Croston. Lancashire. Though an English painting, it visualizes how family portraits were hung in homes throughout the British Atlantic.

Arthur Devis, The Reverend Streynsham Master and His Wife, Margaret of Croston, Lancashire, 1743-44. Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

Each family has stories about their portraits. Every story, whether historically “accurate” or not, and however old, becomes a part of the painting’s history. The private stories I have collected may not make it into my writing about colonial portraiture, but they reveal much about family history and could certainly inform a study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century genealogical practices, memory, and interactions with objects. Families continue to feel their ancestors’ presence channeled through their portraits and talk about how they inspire them to maintain their ancestral homes and collections of family heirlooms. These portrait collections are still living, in the sense that they are continuously added to and engaged with by families and their visitors.

On more than one occasion, my research revealed that the sitter, date, and/or the artist did not match the family’s history. Few things during the research process gave me more anxiety than approaching a family with evidence that contradicted their family histories. Fortunately, all have been generous with me. Whether or not they choose to incorporate my evidence into their family history is up to each family.

But image rights and reproductions are another issue. Negotiating for image rights can be difficult even when paintings are in public collections. Adding to the potential frustration is the fact that not all privately-owned paintings are professionally photographed, nor are all owners willing to share images. Even when owners are willing to grant access and permissions, they may not have the means to have a painting photographed in resolution required by most publishers. There is also an issue of cost. Like museums, the owner can charge fees for images or the right to reproduce. Control over images also adds to the anxiety over research. If an owner doesn’t like what you have to say about their painting, they can refuse to allow you to reproduce it.

The efforts of former researchers have made many paintings in private collections available in photoarchives. I want to especially recognize the efforts of teams behind the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art’s MESDA Object Database and the Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive who have digitized their reference collections and made their databases publicly accessible. These have been essential to my research.

However, what are the ethics involved once a relationship is established with a private owner? The question is not whether a scholar could find an image to publish without the owner’s permission, the question becomes whether one should, out of respect for the owner. What happens if the family disagrees with your interpretation of their painting and does not want you to publish it? This is particularly tricky when analysis includes discussions of contentious topics such as slavery. As I move towards publishing my research, I have to face this dilemma again and approach families once more for permission. Detailed, written descriptions of portraits cannot replace images, but I may have to convince editors that there is no alternative. Here, I should point out the stark contrast in the situation of and choices available to these families as opposed to those available to descendants of enslaved people, highlighted by the case revolving around Renty’s portrait by Louis Agassiz, currently owned by Harvard, which recently made national headlines.

Colonial family portraits had public roles as well as private ones. They were intended to be viewed by others who visited the home. Many social events occurred in the home under the eyes of these family portraits. Families showed off their paintings. Portraits visualized community connections and made public statements about subjects’ various ideological positions. For art historians and historians, these portraits are important artifacts that can tell us much about the people who commissioned, made, and viewed them. Historically, there’s a reason to continue making these images accessible.

But I also recognize the emotional resonance these portraits still have for current family members. As a result, I continue to walk to a fine line between sharing information about important historic artifacts and respecting family privacy (hence the lack of photographs accompanying this post).

If you have ever been curious to see a multi-generational family portrait collection in situ, the most accessible collection in Virginia is at Shirley Plantation, which is partially open to the public, though the family still lives on site and owns the objects. The remarkable Hill Carter family portrait collection dates back to the seventeenth century. The house itself dates to the first quarter of the eighteenth century, but even so, the family portraits have never really left the family property (except for the very rare exhibition loan or for conservation). This differs from many historic homes open as museums whose ownership often passed through different hands before opening to the public. These sites usually have to re-acquire or commission copies of portraits and heirlooms that belonged to the home or collect artifacts that are representative of what the family may have owned during whatever period the site interprets.

Portraiture, frankly, is more powerful when viewed within a home. Viewed in sterile museum galleries, they do not have quite the same impact. It is too easy to walk by them with barely a glance, to say “oh, they all look the same” (my least favorite evaluation of colonial portraiture) or “it’s just another portrait,” or to find no value in portraits of people you’ve never heard of before. They are usually displayed with other objects from a limited period of time, maybe one decade, rather than the objects they originally hung alongside, which often spanned multiple periods and reflect the accumulation of objects over generations. They are often divorced from the subject’s other family members’ portraits. But in someone’s parlor or dining room, colonial portraits come to life and are powerful reminders that the past is still present.

A sincere thank you to the owners who have graciously shared their family portraits with me either in person or via e-mail. Sharing your family portraits with researchers has been of extraordinary benefit to me, and to other scholars.

Janine Yorimoto Boldt is the 2018-2020 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the American Philosophical Society Library & Museum. She studies the political and social functions of portraiture in colonial Virginia and is developing Colonial Virginia Portraits, an online database of colonial Virginia portraiture, which is forthcoming from the Omohundro Institute.

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