Arts Desk

Reviewed: “Pictures In the Parlor” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition "Pictures in the Parlor" is a bit of an oddity. Nominally a photography show, it spotlights "decorative images" created between the 1840s and the 1930s—primarily portraits of family members—that were displayed in homes "to convey the values, aspirations, and achievements of their owners." The exhibit succeeds in rescuing a long-lived, but now largely forgotten, practice from obscurity. Still, the hand-colored photographs, painted tintypes and Victorian-era children’s collages on view have less value as exemplars of art than as markers of social history.

The show illustrates how families of more modest means viewed photography not as an art form with its own distinct aesthetics, but rather as a medium that could mimic more traditional arts like painting. As such, the exhibit traces the relentless democratization of visual keepsakes.

The line between drawing or painting on the one hand, and photographs retouched by crayon, pastel, or watercolor on the other hand, proves fuzzy, both figuratively and literally; the main divide comes from how well the retoucher has made his or her involvement undetectable. Some pieces, such as “Gentleman in Brown Velvet with Patterned Waistcoat” (middle right) or “Boy with Toy Gun” (lower left), could pass for paintings, drawings or lithographs; by comparison, many of the tintypes are too contrasty (and are slathered with too much gaudy paint) to make the illusion work. A few pieces even veer uncomfortably close to the standard set by the ruined “monkey Jesus” fresco in Italy. (Surprisingly, the exhibit includes no hand-colored daguerreotypes, which often prove more visually persuasive than the approaches on display here.)

The most remarkable irony about the works on display is how anonymous all these stern-faced sitters are today. I didn’t notice a single image for which the title card identified the individual pictured—a curious and poignant fate for a selection of works whose very raison d’etre was to celebrate individuals who were near and dear.

Through June 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets, NW. (202) 633-7970. On view daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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