The Daguerreian Society


From The Crayon Vol. 4, Part 2 (February 1857) pp. 44-45.


PORTRAITURE.
By Rembrandt Peale.

   "One reason," says Mrs. Jamieson, "why the daguerreotype portraits are in general so unsatisfactory, may be traced to a natural law, though I have not heard it suggested. It is this: every object which we behold we do not see with the eyes only, but with the soul; and this is especially true of the human countenance, which, in so far as it is the expression of mind, we see through the medium of our own individual mind. Thus a portrait is satisfactory in so far as the painter has sympathy with his subject; and delightful to us in proportion as the resemblance reflected through his sympathies, is in accordance with our own. Now, in the daguerreotype, there is no such medium, and the face comes before us without passing through the human mind and brain to our apprehension. This may be the reason why a daguerreotype, however beautiful and accurate, is seldom satisfactory or agreeable; and that while we acknowledge its truth as a fact, it always leaves something for the sympathies to desire."
   This is a sample of the modern fashion of amateur writing on works of Art, which limits all excellence to mind, soul, sympathy, and ideality, and accords no merit to the most exact representations of natural objects, unless the theoretic and visionary spectator imagines he can discover something of his own notion of mind worked into it, or "suggestively" growing out of it. The intelligent human countenance certainly is, as it ought to be, the most interesting object to a sensitive human being; but it must be acknowledged that the pictures of still life of the Flemish school, as ingenious works of Art—"objects seen with the eyes only"—though they may not excite our sympathies, which have passed through the "mind and brain" of the artist in the medium of paint, moulded by a patient hand under the guidance of a correct eye—have been admired for ages by artists and amateurs of the highest intellect. Indeed, the curious and true representation of most natural objects, and many artificial ones, are pleasing to the mere organ of sight by form, color, light, and shade, whether they have, or have not, any other connection of thought, sentiment, or expression, except the taste which is shown in their grouping, and the harmony of their coloring.
   The daguerreotype Art is of inestimable value in many of its applications. Its wonderful power was first made known to us by a representation of the graceful intricacies of one of the Gothic windows of Notre Dame, which was produced by Mr. Daguerre in twenty minutes. Now only a few seconds would be required to accomplish what the most expert draughtsman would find it difficult to execute in many days. For architectural, and other inanimate objects, nothing can be imagined more perfect. In the exploring expedition of Lewis and Clark, no individual of his party had the least knowledge of drawing; and all the illustrations which embellish the history of that expedition, were engraved from designs made by my father from the skins of animals which he first had to put into their natural forms; and an interesting cataract was drawn entirely from a verbal description. Now the traveller, without any knowledge of drawing, is able to give us correct representations of every object he may deem worthy of notice.
   In the Home Journal it is said that "Daguerreotype has killed miniature painting, and superseded portrait painting. The great majority of those who would otherwise be the patrons of portraiture, are now content with likenesses that are truer, cheaper, and quicker done."
   It has certainly killed bad miniature painting; but cannot supersede portrait painting; though it may, in a certain degree, interfere with its encouragement. Its pictures may be true, as regards the proportions of the features; but they are seldom true in the requisite gradations and rounding of the shadows; but sometimes they are more true in recording the strong marks of age and some fixed expression, than is agreeable to the person represented, and which an accomplished artist would soften down agreeably to represent the character of the individual. Their cheapness is a general advantage, which, by degrees, will widely spread a taste for portraiture, which will ultimately profit by the innovation; for even now it has become necessary for the portrait painter to make his portraits not only as true, but expressively more true than the daguerreotypes, with which but few, at present, are "content."
    As a substitute for portrait painting, the fashion of its employment is quite illusory. It is true that in many instances it furnishes the memento of a relative or friend with little cost of time or money; and this facility has wonderfully increased the number of its productions, notwithstanding the fact that very few of them are agreeable or satisfactory. Yet the art is but new, and improvements are constantly making, which lessen the number of failures, especially with children, who do not fix their countenances for the purpose, and are taken in an instant.
   At first, the daguerreotypes could only be seen in one particular manner; now they may be viewed in any light; and the late improvement of photographs on paper have nearly all the advantages of drawings with Indian ink, and may be retouched and colored from the life, which, however, is seldom the case, as they are generally colored and finished by artists without a sitting from, or even seeing the living original; they are necessarily an inferior substitute for animated portraits, studied during many sittings from the life.
   These photographs may be made useful to the portrait painter, making always due allowance for the perspective exaggerations of the camera, and the injudicious angle of its position, besides being but a one-eyed view of the object. The stereoscope, in some degree, corrects this error, and represents solid objects as seen with two eyes in the lateral direction, still leaving them, too frequently, deficient in frontal altitude, and with exaggerated chin.
   Many years before the invention of Daguerre, in my "Notes of the Painting Room,"* I had written the following article:
   "OUTLINES.—Every artist should be aware of the difference of the outlines, whether they be seen with one eye or two. With one eye we see with optical precision, as from one point of distance; but having two eyes, the pupils or sight of which are nearly three inches apart, each eye really sees a different outline of the sides of rounded objects. The impression on our sight is, therefore, a compound of those two outlines, varying in breadth according to its distance from the object, but varying least at the greatest distance. This fact, rightly considered, is sufficient to show that in painting, no outlines of objects should be sharply delineated."
   "To see still more correctly, though it be not desirable to have two other eyes, one on the forehead, the other on the chin, it becomes necessary, in order correctly to see the upper and lower outlines, as they may compare with the lateral ones, for the artist to raise the level of his vision, in looking at the top of the head, and to lower it in looking at the lower parts of the face; or else to get his sitter to raise or lower the angle of his own face. This lessens the perspective defect of too close a position, and renders the relative proportions more truly, as if seen at a greater distance."
   Subsequently I added the following paragraph:
   "Since the foregoing article was written, this subject, under the title of Binocular Vision, has excited much attention, and has given rise to some learned mystification, but practically has produced the instrument called the stereoscope. Its manifest use to the artist is to show the disadvantage of a one-eyed view of solid objects-the single lens of the camera representing only one eye. The stereoscope, by resolving two views of the same object, taken at different angles, into the effect of one object, therefore more truly represents the effect of vision, as produced by two eyes; but even then is defective in regard to the perpendicular perspective."
   Profiles cut with the physiognotrace, silhouettes, and pencil sketches, as well as daguerreotypes and photographs, all have their relative merit; and as memorials of regard, are not to be despised. The task of the portrait painter is quite another thing— an effort of skill, taste, mind, and judgment—demanding the opportunity of study, during many sittings; not only to perform the executive part, to make it a fine work of Art, in form and color, but to render permanent the transient expression of character which may be the most agreeable. This requires all the resources of his Art, all his experience in the manipulation of his materials, and in the study of character and expression. His success does not depend on his sympathy with his sitter, but his knowledge of the actual forms which constitute expression and character, which must be represented by the learned touches of his pencil, in making every minute trait as it occurs on the surface of the living object. It is not "the reflection of his sympathies," but the reflection of his lines, lights, and shades, as they exist at a fortunate moment. It is comparatively an easy task to paint a striking likeness of a person sitting silent and thoughtful, without emotion; but to catch the expression of the sitter engaged in animated conversation, whether he "sympathizes with the subject," or not, and to mark every part of the countenance with a harmony and unity of sentiment, is only to be expected from the hand and mind of an experienced artist.

*"The Experience of Sixty Years"—a manuscript work not yet published.

(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.)

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