OLD CITY, Philadelphia — When was the last time you had your portrait taken? I don’t mean by a cameraphone or digital camera, but actually sitting down, in a pose and wearing a suit or dress. College graduation or high school prom?
But in colonial-era Philadelphia, portraits in the form of miniatures, silhouettes and early photos were popular, especially among the wealthy to maintain group identities, said independent scholar and curator Anne Verplanck at her recent lecture co-sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and The Library Company of Philadelphia. (Disclosure: I manage the APS’ Facebook page.)
From 1790-1810, miniatures were fashionable in Europe and the newly formed United States, she said. Artists such as James Peale, Charles Wilson Peale and Benjamin Trott painted tiny portraits, mostly of the “mercantile elite,” who put these in lockets, bracelets and necklaces.
“Miniatures needed proximity for viewing, so they expressed private sentiments,” Verplanck said during her lecture “Philadelphians’ Uses of Silhouettes, Miniatures and Daguerreotypes, 1760-1860” on February 24. “Some were embellished with a signature or locket of hair.”
Wealthy, urban Quakers tended to separate themselves from other groups, usually buying silhouettes and photos instead of miniatures. “Quakers preferred plainness and not having to interpret an artist’s work,” Verplanck said. “Physiognomy was popular too, it was being able to tell a person’s character by their body or face.”
In contrast to miniatures, silhouettes did not require an appointment or a long sitting time, as the images were not exposed. A small machine traced the person’s outline.
In the early 1800s, as the United States celebrated its founding and French General Marquis de Lafayette visited the country, Quakers collected one another’s silhouettes. “Quakers preserved and interpreted their identity and role in early United States history before genealogy became popular in the 1850s-60s,” she said.
After an early photo method called the daguerreotype was invented in France in 1839, Philadelphia (along with Boston, New York and Wilmington) became hubs of professional and amateur scientists experimenting with the new medium.
Daguerreotypes provided an exact likeness, and were novel and inexpensive, Verplanck said. It took only 10-15 minutes to sit for a daguerreotype, and the top galleries in Philadelphia were on Market, Chestnut and Arch Streets. While miniatures cost $100-200, daguerreotypes cost $3-6.
Colonial-era sitters had to choose options that are familiar to anyone who changes their Facebook profile picture: what outfit should I wear? serious or fun pose? for a background, do I want the mountains or space lasers?
Read the related Skyline Stories post on Verplanck’s presentation.
View The Library Company’s exhibit on daugerrotypes.
Browse books on early American photography at partner Diane Publishing.