Blatant RealismDuring the first half of the nineteenth century in this country, times were rough. The United States was in the throes of growing pains similar to a sort of national adolescence, and struggling mightily simply to remain United States. There was a "no nonsense" quality to everything the country did during this era from canal building to railroad building to nation building, and that quality also carried over into her art. If the word "naturalism" befitted the style of landscape painting during this time, the term "realism" was the dominating element in portrait painting, still the nation's most important form of art. In fact some historians have even gone so far as to label the style blatant Realism, and not without good reason.
Portrait painters in the first half of the nineteenth century were second generation American artists with an artistic tradition (albeit a very shallow one) to look back upon and build upon. It was a pretentious era in which the veneer of success and respectability was paper-thin. Scratch it only slightly, even in the civilised east, and just beneath the surface were the remnants of the American frontier--a life and time many of the dignified faces staring out from genteel oil portraits of the era were trying desperately to put behind them. Add to that the arrival from France in 1839 of Samuel F. B. Morse with Louis Daguerre's process for making photographs and you have the makings for a little "war" between new science and old art that promised to make life miserable for portrait painters for the next 25 years.
It's difficult to overstate the impact the advent of photography had on the painted portrait in this country of hard-nosed Yankee pragmatism coupled with our long-standing love affair with new technology. Almost immediately painters of miniature portraits became extinct. Seeing the writing on the wall, artists like Charles Loring Elliot, Chester Harding, and Lilly Martin Spencer felt the need to compete head on with portrait photography. They had on their side the ability to paint much larger than early photographs, and of course, in colour. And also, they had a tradition of artistic excellence that early photographic processes couldn't come close to matching. What they lacked was the verisimilitude that photography offered in terms of capturing every line, hair, and nuance of the sitter's appearance. And here is where they crossed the line, from simple Realism, into the blatant Realism that today makes art historians cringe. In their struggle to compete, they often gave their painted portraits, much the same stiff, stark, unblinking harshness of most early photographs during this period. It remained for artist such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to eschew the photograph and return some sanity to the art of portrait painting during the latter years of the century.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
17 July 1998