- Historic Sites
A historian of American portraits tells how he determines whether a picture is authentic—and why that authenticity matters
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
The difficulty arises when we have limited and insufficient knowledge of what a historical figure truly looked like. Take, for instance, the five daguerreotypes of the lovely young women on pages 80–81. They all resemble one another, yet each image is somehow different. The gentleman in figure 2 is the young Rutherford B. Hayes, the future nineteenth President of the United States. The woman beside him is his wife, Lucy Ware Webb. Rutherford would have had no difficulty recognizing Lucy in figures 3 and 4. We know this is Lucy too because of the provenances of these daguerreotypes- both images were part of Hayes’s personal photographic collection. Yet young Hayes would have had no more of a clue than we do to the identities of the two other young ladies in figures 1 and 5. Those two plates were made by the noted daguerreotype firm of Southworth & Hawes, of Boston, sometime between 1843 and 1863. They are now in the collection of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The lady in figure 1 is half of a matching pair of portraits, whose other unidentified half is her husband. The young woman in figure 5 has the same compelling stare as Lucy Hayes. Lucy, however, probably was never in Boston when this firm was in business and consequently never had the opportunity of confronting one of its cameras. The proximity of subject and artist should always be a primary consideration when trying to authenticate life portraiture, whatever the medium.
These five images of three similar-looking women should underscore the futility of measuring eyes, ears, and noses with lines and graphs to establish positive identities. To engage in this would be similar to measuring the sun with a ruler. The use of computers for purposes of identification of historical individuals can assist perhaps in narrowing the scope of our investigations, but to rely on them for positive identification would be as futile as carbonating something inorganic, like the Great Pyramid. Try having a computer analyze black-and-white photographs of two similar-looking objects. Would the computer be able to distinguish a lemon from a lime? Or would it tell us they are the same things? Worse still, might it tell us one thing one time and something different another time? Yet slice into those distinct citrus fruits and a blindfolded person would be able to tell one from the other. Our five senses are remarkably discerning when not confused by our creative intelligence and desires.
Familiarity with the face is essential for positive recognition, because photographs of the same person can vary in appearance.
An astute sense of sight is a tremendous asset in the field of portraiture, especially when analyzing paintings and sculptures. The potential for problem solving in these media goes far beyond the rudimentary task of matching famous names with intriguing faces. What we are most interested in is portraiture that evokes life and character. The ability of an artist to capture something as intangible as personality is the genius of the art. Confronting a vigorous life portrait can be like walking in on an intimate conversation unexpectedly; suddenly those painted eyes transcend the canvas and transfix the intruder as though they were real.
Of course not every portrait pulsates when we look at it. So trained professionals inevitably ask themselves the nagging question, Was it executed from life? An artist’s signature and date, a bill of sale, contemporary letters and diaries all can lend authenticity to a portrait that otherwise may not speak forcefully for itself. And if we are unable to determine a portrait’s life status for certain, does it really matter? Yes, if it is to be viewed as a historical document, a primary record of a person’s life, much as a signed letter would be regarded.
This is especially true for portraits of historical personalities. Just as we aspire to know the truth in biography, we should not be content with less in portraiture. It could be argued that the greater a person’s national significance, the more critical we should be of his or her images. Consider, for instance, Daniel Webster, whose sensational oratory and statesmanship were in every way worthy of his striking physical presence. Although his was one of the best-publicized faces of his generation, the Boston Transcript complained in 1846: “We have never yet looked upon what we could term ‘a capital likeness’ of Daniel Webster. All portraits of him look either too glum or too tame, and lack the striking characteristics of his remarkable countenance. The engraving before us has a pleasant, thoughtful face, but it would give to a stranger little idea of the depth and intensity of his intellect. It has none of the ponderousness of his character.” On the other hand, Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 study for a portrait of George Washington, a version of which appears today on the one-dollar bill, was never finished beyond the head, yet its commanding presence has made it one of the nation’s most treasured icons. The same might be said for the last studio photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner two months before Lincoln died.