Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Ten: Portraits of American Women

Every time we add another portrait to the Portraits of American Women file in ImPAC  it’s a cause for celebration. As Curator of Women’s History, I find that adding to the file is my favorite thing. As a whole, it provides glimpses of so many women’s lives: famous women, infamous women, and ordinary women too. For me, the total is more than the sum of the parts.

In 2013, we topped 300 portraits. They depict murder victims and perpetrators, presidents’ and diplomats’ wives, writers, missionaries, actresses, thieves, famous beauties (some of whom were fictitious), girls who were held captive, teachers, adulteresses, and divorcees. There are nice girls who died pious deaths (such as Sarah Fellowes Davis) and mean girls who spread harmful gossip (like Elizabeth Ellet). All of the portraits appeared in books and periodicals before 1861.

I try not to have favorites. Each one can be my favorite-of-the-moment, depending on what I’m doing. When a reader is interested in the history of the classification of children who are developmentally challenged as “imbeciles,” I think of Beckie and Bessie:

When I want to consider the actress Charlotte Cushman, famous for her performances as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, I can juxtapose a caricature of her with a “straight” portrait:

This past summer we acquired the first volume of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, in which the caricature appears. To our immense surprise, the original 1851 issues of Gleason’s include the article associated with that caricature, but the reprint of the volume three years later did not! Had we not gone looking for it to reproduce in the “Cushmania” section of our next exhibition “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America,” we would never have realized that the reprint edition (a copy of which is held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) did not include the remarkable issue in which the reviewer discusses Cushman’s portrayal of Romeo. Cushman was enormously successful as an actress who performed in male roles, and off-stage she apparently was quite a Romeo as well. When she was living in Rome after retiring from the stage, she typically had a young female protégé as well as a peer relationship with a female partner.

One of my favorite aspects of the Portraits of American Women file is the chance juxtaposition of women, thanks to its alphabetic arrangement: Cynthia Taggart (invalid poet), Sarah Louisa Taylor (exemplary Christian), H. Trusta (novelist who wrote under a nom de plume), Sojourner Truth (itinerant preacher), Tshusick (itinerant con artist), Ruth Tucker (patient at Pennsylvania Hospital), and so forth. They are all wonderful – each in her own way.

Connie King
Curator of Women's History


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