- 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
Obviously the human eye is limited in its ability to judge whether a portrait was executed from life. In certain cases mere shards of information can be rewarding. Take, for instance, a notice discovered recently in the Natchez Weekly Gazette of January 22, 1840. Amid reports of Andrew Jackson’s visit to New Orleans in commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of his historic victory, the paper stated that Edward D. Marchant had given James Tooley, Jr., permission to copy his life portrait of Jackson. A century and a half after the fact, this news has been a revelation. Tooley’s miniature of Jackson was always believed to have been executed from life; for years it has been on display in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hall of Presidents.
Still more surprising has been the discovery of the supposed lost likeness by Marchant, a heretofore unidentified canvas at the Union League of Philadelphia. For decades this portrait had suffered one misattribution after another. More recently the artist had been listed as unknown. Yet the portrait’s similarity to the Tooley miniature invited closer examination, to good effect. The images are nearly exact in overall composition, and even the details are the same. For instance, the shading on Jackson’s left cheek assumes the shape of a T in both paintings. Tooley’s skill as a copyist is also clearly evident in his replication of the eyeglasses and their shadow. A contemporary source noted how in Marchant’s original portrait Jackson’s “ancient spectacles … stand off in firm perspective, casting a mellow shade back upon the dimmed eye and faded cheek.”
James Tooley’s miniature can no longer claim life status. Yet its value in practical terms has only increased because of what it has revealed about Marchant’s “lost” portrait. Ironically, Marchant’s Jackson is less animated than Tooley’s second-generation miniature. Nevertheless it corroborates the legendary figure preserved in other portraits painted in New Orleans in January 1840, as it prefigures the most intriguing of the handful of Jackson daguerreotypes. In this plate, shown at the bottom of page 85, taken shortly before his death, Jackson faces the camera and posterity almost squarely. Against the dark amorphous background his countenance emerges seemingly from nowhere, like that of a specter. This candid likeness is oddly reminiscent of many caricatures of Jackson, and perhaps it was about this plate that Jackson said, “Humph, looks like a monkey.”
So much for new technology in the age of Jackson. But what about the future? What might historical portraits look like next? The New York photographer Nancy Burson offers some insight into the possibilities in her computer-generated composite photograph, The President . Created from the images of five Presidents —Nixon to Bush—this technological amalgam of eyes, ears, and grins is Burson’s attempt to “stretch the limits a little bit of what people can see.” To be sure, the result is a perfect stranger.
Still, somehow we know this face.