P is for Portraits

Pope County Museum A-Z is a continuing feature of our blog. Periodically, I will highlight an item or items from our Museum collection.

Martin and Kathryn Bartos

Martin and Kathryn Bartos

In our museum, we have a long wall of pioneer portraits. Visitors often linger by the images as if wondering about these people from long ago. One of the most frequent questions I receive about them is: “Why didn’t they ever smile in the pictures?”

There are several theories about the lack of smiling faces. One is that long exposure times required the subject to sit very still and it is easier to hold a serious expression than a smile. The lack of dental care is another theory. After all, who wants a permanent record of themselves showing bad teeth?

John C. and Lovissa Peterson

John C. and Lovissa Peterson

But the most likely reason is simply that NOBODY smiled in portraits. Painted portraits of the time didn’t feature smiling faces either. Nowadays, we try to capture those fleeting moments, the true smiles. Smiling in photographs would most likely have been perceived as a fake smile and it was better to use the rare, serious, special occasions of getting photographed to present yourself as serious.

The pictures in our gallery are also interesting because of their technique.

Eliza (Bevier) Pennie

Eliza (Bevier) Pennie

Images like this are produced from small early photographs such as daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes that were placed in a Woodward Solar Enlarger. The enlarger produced a weak photographic print on a large sheet (usually 20 x 16) of heavy paper, which was then sketched over by an artist. Most were done in with black Conte crayons made of powdered graphite or charcoal mix with a clay or wax base. Sometimes color pastels were also used.

The Crayon Portraits (as they are known) were popular from 1860 to about 1905. But, the original image used in the enlarging process may have been taken much earlier, so it is difficult to determine life dates based on crayon portraits.

Margaret (Taylor) Cooley

Margaret (Taylor) Cooley

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One Response to P is for Portraits

  1. Marty Flom says:

    Fun to see these, thanks!

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