Colonial PhotographyViewfinder on the Past
The case can be made that all the necessary chemistry, optics, and knowledge for the invention of photography existed in the colonial era but were not brought together until the 19th century. What if they had been? Imagine if we had photographs of the events of the American Revolution, portrait photos of George Washington, and the construction of Independence Hall.
There are in fact photographs that do offer a window into the colonial era. Inadvertently at first, then later with deliberation, and finally with scientific methodology, photographers from the middle 19th century on have provided evidence of our colonial heritage, taken at a time much closer to that era. This exhibit is a presentation of photographs that can illuminate the colonial world.
The colonial era in America doesn't enjoy the popular interest of the Civil War or the American Revolution, but it has long been the basis for an American collective identity. We look to our founding fathers and early settlers as models of American independence, virtue, and resourcefulness. It is interesting to note how the conception of this past era has often been inaccurate to the historic reality of colonial America. The centennial of our nation's birth in 1876 and the 400th anniversary of the discovery by Columbus in 1892 triggered massive popular interest in Americana, yet our society did not have a clear understanding of its colonial architecture or styles, even as this past was widely celebrated. Throughout the 19th century, the colonial world was misrepresented in popular prints with later architectural details and "ye olde" looking costumes.
Howard Pyle. Christmas Morning in Old New York. Wood engraving. Harper's Weekly, December, 1880.
Howard Pyle prided himself on getting the details right, and as his career progressed, his illustrations gained sophistication and historic accuracy. But, this wonderful view of Christmas in colonial New York features women's dress that has a closer resemblance to 1880s fashions, architectural details such as a 19th century fanlight over a door, and wrought iron sign supports that relate more to the English Gothic Revival movement than colonial America. Add to this the fact that Christmas was a very low-key celebration in the Colonial era.
Private Room of Sir Henry Clinton No. 1 Broadway 1858. In which André received his last instructions. Lithograph. Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York. 1858.
British General Henry Clinton meets with his spymaster John André in 1780, but in an interior full of furniture not yet made. In particular, the French Empire mantle, and the 1840s chairs, table coverings, and picture frame, are of eras yet to come.
Brougham. General Warren Taking Leave of his Wife and Son on the Eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Engraving.
The flowing hairstyle and the cut of Mrs. Warren's dress are the height of 1850s style, placed into the events of the 1770s.
Unless noted, all images are from the Clements Library collections.
Copyrights to the contents of this exhibit, both text and images, are held by the Clements Library.
Permission for use and reproduction must be obtained in advance from the director of the Clements Library.
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