Portraiture has long played an important role in American art. From early Colonial times to the present, portraiture evolved from a purely documentary art form into a means of addressing complex social and cultural issues. By taking a visit to the New Britain Museum of American Art, one can trace the evolution of this popular art form by viewing the many examples of portraiture the museum has to offer.
Among the most formidable examples of portraiture in the Museum’s collection is the painting Lydia Lynde by John Singleton Copley. While early Colonial portraiture was painted by artists with rudimentary training, the next generation of artists (including Copley) was exposed to European artistic theories and methods. From an early age in his home in Boston, the artist experimented with engraving, drawing, while also learning a great deal from the British painters John Smibert (1688-1751) and Joseph Blackburn (1700-1765). Copley’s travels to Europe further on in his career provided him with a degree of technical expertise unparalleled by many of his contemporaries.
When Lydia Lynde commissioned her portrait from Copley in 1762, the artist had secured his position as New England’s preeminent portraitist. Men and women of wealth and prestige flocked to Copley’s studio to be portrayed in the refined manner of English men and women. Well-versed in English style portraiture and adept at the construction of visual identity, Copley carefully crafted his portraits through a variety of objects and settings to suit the sitters’ needs. By choosing from a number of different of templates that the artist had created, a woman like Lydia could control the very dress, prop, and even attitude that would be used to represent her high status in society.
If Copley’s portraits served as indicators of the material and ephemeral aspects of identity, the contemporary portraiture of photographer Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) seeks to evoke aspects of his subjects’ inner nature. Bey’s monumental photograph, Laneisha II can be found within the Museum’s collection of photography. His photography is not simply a means of documentation, but also a way of challenging fixed societal notions.
Laneisha II is an example of the photographs Bey was taking of the local youth in his community while working as the visiting artist at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Unlike John Singleton Copley, who maintained a high level of artifice in the construction of his sitters’ identities, Bey encourages his subjects to present themselves in their own clothes and without added props in order to allow their inner selves to shine through. This element of collaboration is vital to Bey both as a means of breaking down barriers between subject and artist, and also as a way of engaging the viewer more closely with the subject.
Dawoud Bey’s photographs are images of youth who are not afraid to face themselves. By confronting both the camera and themselves with brutal intimacy, they challenge stereotypical perceptions by revealing their individuality to the viewer. By fragmenting Laneisha’s portrait, Bey alludes to the daily struggles in this young girl’s life. The lived experience of Lydia Lynde, however, remains almost a total mystery. Although her portrait is pristine and whole, its potential for representing the totality of her identity is questionable, because her mode of self-presentation was limited to the costumes and props found in Copley’s studio.
Do you think a photograph inherently holds greater potential to represent the “true” identity of a sitter than a painting?
In many ways, Copley’s practice of providing props, backdrops, and clothing for his sitters is still alive and well in studio photography. Do you think it is possible to completely eliminate the element of artifice that goes into creating a studio portrait? (Please feel free to think back to those family portraits!)
If you had to choose three items to help convey your sense of individuality in a portrait, what would they be?