During the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, times were rough. The nation 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. That quality also carried over into the art of the times. If the word "naturalism" befitted the style of landscape painting during this time, the term "realism" was the dominating element in portrait painting, then still the nations 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 cause.
|Daguerreotype photo of|
Congressman Abraham Lincoln,
It's difficult to overstate the impact the advent of photography had on the painted portrait in a nation 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 color. Also, they had a tradition of artistic excellence that early photographic processes couldn't come close to matching.
|Samuel Putnam Avery, 1863,|
Charles Loring Elliot
What they lacked was the verisimilitude that photography offered in capturing every line, hair, and nuance of the sitter's appearance. It was here where painters 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 photographs during this period. In fact, many portrait painters were already embracing the time-saving benefits of photography by using photos from which to paint, though often surreptitiously. 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 final decade of the nineteenth century.