The Painted Tintype & The Decorative Frame, 1860-1910

from the Stanley B. Burns, M.D., Collection

Curated by Sara and Stanley B. Burns and opening December 9, Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype & The Decorative Frame, 1860-1910, is a ground-breaking exhibition of painted tintype photographs and the elaborate and diverse ways in which they were framed. Including over 130 works from the Stanley B. Burns, M.D. Collection, this exhibition fills a previously undocumented gap in the history of American painting and photography during the decades following the Civil War. Other-worldly and yet unavoidably inviting, these images sweep the viewer into a period of contagious optimism that saw the rise of a solid American middle class.

The history of American portraiture was radically altered by the development of photography. Until the mid-nineteenth century the privilege of having one's image immortalized through a painted portrait was available only to the wealthy and famous. Painted portraits, like Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington, solidly positioned certain people in American society and history. But by the end of the nineteenth century photographers had effectively democratized portraiture and irrevocably altered the way human beings see themselves. The most modest working-class home could now be decorated with individual and family portraits in the tradition of wealthy Europeans and Americans.

Dr. Burns explains the artistic evolution that occurred in America during this period:

Most people are aware of the great American portrait painters of the early nineteenth century-Stuart, Copley, Sully, Peale. The same is true of the portraits at the end of the century, exemplified by Cassaatt, Eakins and Sargent. But when asked about the period between 1850 and 1880, most people draw a blank. Painted portraiture would seem to have suffered a severe decline during this period.

Photography is generally acknowledged as the culprit that killed traditional portraiture. What is not generally recognized is the fact that a specific type of photograph was responsible for the change. Framed, hand-colored photographs competed with, and finally displaced, conventional portraits. The best works of painted photography were comparable to the finest academic art, while cheaper forms drove the folk artist out of business.
The painted tintype portrait, which has until recently been overlooked in the history of American art, was an essential stage in the portrait becoming accessible to common people. Invented in 1856, tintypes (actually made of iron but so-called because of the tin snips that were used to trim them), or "ferrotypes", were cheap and easy to produce. Combined with various degrees of overpainting and decorative frames, these tintypes replaced portraiture done by itinerant folk painters and carried the folk style into every segment of American culture. Between the Civil War and World War I painted and framed tintypes became an important means by which the lower and middle classes confirmed their place in society. These were America's golden years: the country was unified, expansion to the west was complete, America emerged as an imperial power and millions of immigrants were invited to share in its prosperity. It is through this neglected chapter of American art that Dr. Stanley B. Burns is focusing more attention on the cultural aspirations and artistic attainments of "ordinary Americans" and demonstrating the unbroken continuity between painted and photographic portraiture in American life and culture.

Nineteenth Century photographs have traditionally been presented from the viewpoint of either art historians or social/political historians. Art historians tend to isolate the work of noteworthy photographers and use it to retrospectively confirm their current assessment of what fine art should look like. From Timothy O'Sullivan's western landscapes to Atget's Paris, a select subset of nineteenth century photographic work is enshrined within the history of photography. Many dealers in fine photographs as well as curators will remove a print from its original context, place it in a pristine over-mat, then frame the elegant object in a subtle wood or metal frame. The result is an object for contemplation, isolated from the culture that created it. In contrast, traditional social or political historians make use of what might be thought of as "photographic history." In this case, photographs are frequently selected to help support a given thesis. From television's Civil War series to text books on migrant labor, historians strive to find images that fit their text. Photographs are used to illustrate rather than illuminate a subject. In both extremes, the art historian and the social historian have an agenda within which photography must fit.

In assembling his archive and organizing Forgotten Marriage, Dr. Burns has used a methodology which addresses an area neglected by both art history and social history. Burns works like an archeologist or anthropologist, unearthing the artifacts of a forgotten culture and examining the relationship among the parts. While the conventional historian isolates visual information and the art historian looks at the primacy of the producer-the artist-Dr. Burns offers us a clear sense of the consumer. The family portraits in Forgotten Marriage, hand-painted and presented in their original frames, are essential artifacts of American material culture. Like furniture and furnishings, they were intimately a part of domestic life and expressions of the emergence of an American middle class.

The exhibition, and its accompanying publication by Dr. Burns is an important contribution to the history of photography and American decorative arts. The book is available in the UCR/CMP Museum Store and through mail order sales.

The formal and distant subjects of Forgotten Marriage, whose identities are largely lost to history, now become a catalyst for the imagination. They represent an America that is very close to us historically yet unfathomably distant in how it saw itself. The long history of portraiture, the accessibility of folk art and the technology of photography come together in Forgotten Marriage to impart the stories of men, women and children whose young country offered the hope of opportunity and prosperity.

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