You are here

Background: The Picture in the Picture

The Picture in the Picture

From its emergence in the 1860s Theatrical Photography took as its pictorial model theatrical scene design. Performer images strove to evoke piquant moods by exploiting the tensions between represented three-dimensional objects (persons and props) and painted places.  Their effectiveness depended upon making an onlooker aware of the artistry involved in creating the scene no matter how virtuosic its verisimilitude.  Most frequently artistry appeared in the undisguised painterly character of portions of scene—in intentional violations of the illusion of reality.

Theatrical photography emerged in the United States in the 1860s when Gurney & Son Studio began selling cartes de visite and imperial cartes (cabinet cards) of stage performers in costume first in a studio setting with a minimal background [Gurney & Son: Kate Santley, “Black Crook,” 1866], and later with a painted background that gestured generically at some scene in the original [Gurney & Son: Madame Sohlke, “The Devil’s Auction,” 1867]. In Great Britain the tradition of theatrical photography began in 1856 with tableaux of Charles Kean’s Company in scenes from several Shakespeare’s plays taken by Martin Laroche (a.k.a. William Henry Sylvester).[1] While numbers of the Kean images shows members of the company dressed as Shakespearean characters in Laroche’s minimally decorated studio at 65 Oxford Street studio in London, a select few show a costumed performer with period props before a painted set.  

Some theater historians have argued that these were the first stage pictures—the first documentary images of performance taken within a theater—yet the focal distance, lighting, and conventions argue that these were recreations in studio, using settings transported from Princess's Theater seven doors down the street [Laroche-Hurley-as Launcelot Gobbo-“Merchant of Venice,” 1858].  Laroche’s photographs captured Kean’s hyper-historicist approach to scenery and props in Shakespeare’s plays. Kean’s mania for pictorial propriety had him haunting the auction houses of London in search of old furniture and prints that conveyed the look of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2]   When Laroche sold his images, part of their charm lay in their capacity to transport viewers into another era visually. His historicism, like all historicisms had a factitious  constructedness to it, yet avoided the anachronism that plagued so much Victorian recreation of the past by using antique engravings and paintings as models for decor. That the engravings might be fanciful instead of reportorial hardly mattered. The power of historicism always lies in an integrity of effect, not its plausibility.

Laroche’s photographs of Kean’s Shakespearean scenes mattered for American theatrical photography not because they circulated widely in the United States, but because America’s greatest theatrical photographer, Napoleon Sarony, began his career in 1864 as a camera artist partnered with Laroche in Birmingham.  During the two years of joint practice in England, Sarony internalized the lessons of Laroche’s imagery: the permission given the subject to engage in potent gestures,  the visual harmony of costume, prop, make-up, and background, the subject’s eye-engagement with persons and things other than the on-looker,  the visual proximity to the subjects (the first actual stage pictures of the 1880s insistently showed the whole expanse of the stage).  Sarony would, in the 1870s, name these studio simulations of the stage “dramatic tableaux.”[3] 

When Sarony returned to the United States in 1866, he found a theatrical culture in which the manager or chief actor in a troupe did not dictate the visual design of stage worlds.  (David Belasco at the end of the nineteenth century would be the first in the United States to impose a visual stamp on his productions). Rather the scenic artist created the world on stage.

Scenic Artists—painters who designed, built, and colored theatrical scenery—since the seventeenth century had occupied a special niche in the world of fine arts.  Most trained as landscape painters.  Affiliation with a theater gave an artist a greater promise of security than the marketplace for pictures, unless one had won royal or court patronage.  Those with a genius for scenic genre had the pleasure of seeing their fancies constructed on a scale calibrated to the size of human beings, lit in a manner that altered their visual character at different times, and representing places in both two and three dimensions.  From the eighteenth century onward, they devised scenes that transformed into something else before an onlooker’s eyes. It was from the ranks of scenic artists that Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the most influential photographic pioneer, emerged.

The traditional liabilities of being a scenic artist were the same as those of the stage performer:  “The actor laments that he leaves nothing behind him but a precarious recollection.  The scenic artist might make the same complaint, and with greater justice, for not only do his works perish, but he gets very little of the encouragement of applause, with which the actor might well be content.”[4]

Within the world of the theater, however, accomplished scenic artists commanded respect and money from the powers of the profession, the managers.  “Every stock theatre has at least one scenic artist attached to it,” said one theatrical critic of the late ninteenth century.[5] Once an artist made a name,[6] he could go wherever they pleased in the United States, since a manager was always willing to have more than one talented painter on staff.  Since the brotherhood tended toward Bohemianism, curiosity, and adventure, a scenic artist might spend a season in San Francisco, stop off for a job in Chicago, before homing in New York, or working the Boston and Philadelphia theaters as refreshment from routine. 

Most scene designers worked at the theater.  The work had several stages:  the preparation of a miniature model of the stage setup and two or three scene sketches.   The more architectural the setting, the more careful the drawing. “The artist’s key sketch is divided into squares, and the same are drawn to a large scale upon the canvas, and the lines of the original are accurately reproduced.”[7] The artist gave the model to the stage carpenter “who builds the frame-work and pastes the canvas upon it. It is then ready for the ‘paint frame.’ This is a huge wooden affair, hung upon ropes, with counterweights attached.  It is usually placed against the wall at the back or side of the stage, and has a windlass attached by which it may be hoisted and lowered.  The artist works upon a bridge built in the front of this frame and at its top when the bottom is touching the stage.  By hoisting or lowering the paint frame he is enable to reach any part of his scene.”[8] Painting a set required assistants.  These sized the linen and primed it with a white foundation coat.  Upon this white field the charcoal rough image would be sketched, sometimes with the aid of a projector magnifying the master image.  This rough would be inked to set a clear outline of features.  The assistants combine sizing (hot glue in solution) and watercolor paint  for the base color plot.  This mixture was called ‘distemper.’ Only when the color plot for an area had been laid out would the scene artist come in with his paint buckets and work textures and details. The work was done in filtered day light at close quarters. Only an experienced artist’s ability to visualize how things would read from a distance insured success.[9]

Because auditoriums afforded a wide array of viewing angles, designers tended to render perspective emphatically. The vanishing point was selected (usually outside of the represented area), a nail fixed on it, and stretches lengths of charcoal dusted twine across the stage at angles.  Walls, hedges, fences or some other features would be constructed along one of the lines. 

Command of perspective—administrative ability—color sense—draughtsmanship—dexterity of hand—all these requisite abilities made the vocation of scenic artistic fiercely demanding.  Yet genius in this field lay in an ability to represent anything—a pan-mimetic capacity.  Whatever locale a playwright might imagine or a stage manager demand, a scenic artist had to conjure out of his mental bank of vistas and vignettes.  “He is not permitted to cultivate any particular branch or his art, or any favorite style.  He must be able to produce at any time the wild mountainous passes of Switzerland or the flat meadows of Holland; the green lanes of home-like England or the winding valleys of romantic Spain.  In his architectural work he cannot devote himself to the Goth or the Romanesque, but must be equally master of the Moorish, the Greek and the Oriental. He may to-day be called upon to paint the Temple of Minerva, and tomorrow the Mosque of Omar.”[10]  According to this appreciator, the scenic artist must exercise a visual eclecticism that encompasses historicism, orientalism, romantic sublimity, and Gothicism.  Not mentioned, but nevertheless an important region of dramatic imagination during the last half of the nineteenth century was fairyland—the fantasy realm of folk tales and Celtic song.  This magical region the scenic artist bedizened with foil and glass, metallic paints and mirrors. 

Only a broad acquaintance with painting and, after 1860, scenic photography enabled a theatrical scene painter to fashion the worlds the managers demanded in a timely fashion.  Hugh L. Reid explained, “the reason scenic artists take most of their subjects for curtains, &c. from pictures by other artists is on account of the lack of time allotted to them.  It would be impossible to conceive and execute an original in the space of time usually allowed for such work. We would prefer to be original, if we had the time.”[11]  Reid never became one of the first rank scenic artists—those supreme painters capable of create novelty on the stage from a mental miscellany. 

From the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century a dozen painters won fames as scenic artists in the United States. A number were born and trained in Europe.  William Voegtlin, born in Basle Switzerland, came to New York before the Civil War, won fame as the creator of the fantastic stage world of the first extravaganza, “The Back Crook.” He traversed the country supplying sets for theatres in San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans, before settling in as scenic artist at the Union Square Theatre and later, the Globe Theater in New York.  Among the most versatile of artists, he impressed critics with cityscapes (“Pavements of Paris”), natural scenes (the seashore in “Dennison”), high and low style interiors (“Pique”), and historicist scenes (The Salvini-Mary Anderson production of “Romeo and Juliet” painted to Alfred Thompson designs). Upon his death in 1892, Voegtlin’s legacy was continued by his son, Arthur, artist at the Madison Square Theater,

Philip W. Goatcher, was trained  by his father, a London scene painter, before seeking his fortune in Australia.  After five years as chief artist at the Royal Theatre in Melbourne, he continued his global transit to America at the invitation of Henry E. Abby at the Park Theatre.  His specialty—pastoral landscapes—appeared to wonderful effect in his sets at Wallack’s Theatre for “Comedy of Errors” and “As you like it”—yet his capacity for whimsy and fantasy was manifested in his sets for the musical comedy “The Lady or the Tiger” (1888).  In the late 1880s he formed an independent studio, “Goatcher & Young, Scenic Artists,” so he could choose his projects.  An ugly divorce trial in 1892 soured him on America and its legal system. He returned to England and eventually to Australia to ply his trade into the twentieth century.

As brilliant as Goatcher was in outdoor scenes, his countryman James Roberts was in interiors, whether historical or contemporary.  Arriving in New York in 1860 he attached himself to Augustine Daly at the Fifth Avenue Theater.  Burned in the conflagration that destroyed the theater, he painted in pain for the remainder of his life. He could only hear screamed replies. Yet his talents were so superlative that Daly kept employed at the Broadway Theater, where he designed all of the famous Daly’s productions of the 1880s.[12]  He, like Goatcher excelled at Shakespeare, and his scenery for “Love’s Labor Lost” for Daly’s Theater painted with the aid of Lafayette W. Seavey impressed contemporaries with the conviction that “no handsomer setting of a play by Shakespeare was ever seen in this country.”[13]

The great visualizer of lunatic landscapes was the French born artist Ernest Gros who in the 1890s provided the sets for most of the comic operas in New York.  Oriental glitz, sunny Neverneverlands, and hazy mystic woods were his specialties.  The roster of his works included many of the humorous hits of the Gilded Age—“The Fencing Master,” The Panjandrum,” “The Charlatan,” “Dr. Syntax,” “The Sporting Duchess, and “The Fatal Card.”[14] He remained a force on Broadway into the twentieth century.

John Mazzanovich was born on the Island of Lazina in Dalmatia in 1856. His family emigrated to the United States in 1868. Mazzanovich enlisted in the U. S. Army while a teenager and during service in the Arizona territory took drawing lessons from his regiment’s surgeon.  His skill was such that after discharge, he ventured to San Francisco and sought employment in the crew of a scenic artist.  He quickly rose to the rank of artist at Baldwin’s Theater.  Touring companies reported Mazznovich’s talent to the New York managers.  He received an invitation to come to New York at work at Wallack’s.  He won fame for his sets for “The Rajah,” “The Silver King,” and “Nanon.” In 1885 he contracted tuberculosis.  He left New York, briefly worked in Chicago, and returned to California to recuperate.  He died in 1886.[15]  His work on “The Rajah” has been preserved in Benjamin Falk’s photolight images of 1883, the second theatrical production for which stage images were recorded. 

Among American born artists, Minard Lewis emerged as a distinctive talent in the 1860s. His sets for Joseph Jefferson’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1867) became a benchmark of visual Americana.  Son of a New York City developer, he was educated in Princeton seminary, read law in New York City, but was disinterested in professional life. He became friends with Duke White, the greatest native scene painter in the United States, who enticed him into the theatre.  White trained him and oversaw his entrée into the vocation.  The discovery of gold in California caused him to join the train of 49ers.  He did not find his fortune.  With sketchbook in tucked under his arm, and a trove of western imagery captured on paper, he determined to head southward, trekking into Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies.  The experiences galvanized his color sense. Moses Kimball of  Boston Museum Theater Company employed him and immediately Minard’s work created a sensation.  Expressive, with irrational outlines, extravagant colors, and intentionally anti-perspectival at times, it contrasted with every other painter in the country.[16] His versatility at handling exterior and interior scenes was legendary. 

Homer F. Emens a generation later followed a similar career path.  He grew up in a mercantile family, but his inclination to arts brought him into the orbit of Philip Goatcher. He worked as chief assistant in the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, then stints at several New York Theaters, including a year under John Mazzanovich.  Charles Frohman hired him to be chief scenic artist at the Madison Square Theater. He excelled at perspectival architectural renderings, scene to great advantage in “Our Old Homestead” in 1886.  His nocturnal landscapes were poetic, and the moonlit glen in “Gismonda” won him work in the American Opera Company Theater.  Sarah Bernhardt secured his services for all her productions in America.  He would become the second official scenic artist at the Metropolitan opera.[17]

Yet the greatest American-born scenic artist in the eyes of critics and painters was Henry E. Hoyt, a Brooklynite who presided over the luxurious scenic studio at the Metropolitan Opera House in the 1890s.  His renderings of the mythic Germanic world of Wagner’s Operas won the approval of the powers at Bayreuth, while the coloration and verisimilitude given imaginary places compelled universal respect.  He emerged as a force in the field in the 1880s designing at the Casino Theater.  His forest glen in “The Forresters” (1891) revealed him as a master of Germanic style woods.  Yet his Shakespeare sets, with their neoclassic severity and romantic nature scenes attracted the notice of the opera managers in New York.[18] 

This survey suggests the range of expertise found in the New York theaters at the period when theatrical photographers began to imitate stage pictures in the tableaux shots staged at their studios. Napoleon Sarony, having gravitated into photography after a successful career as a graphic artist and lithographer, began to ponder how to make the visual worlds in photographs possess the magic of theatrical illusion, and how create in the studio the most compelling pictures created on the Broadway stage. He naturally sought out expertise among his fellow artists.  His partner in Birmingham, England, Laroche, had taken the first tableaux, having the Charles Keane cart theirs sets, props, and costumes to his studio to create approximations of their performances.  Sarony did not desire to experience the logistic headaches of hauling sets from theater to studio.  Yet there was no reason why he could not have his own sets painted in the studio.  No copyright ever attached to theatrical properties and sets.  Just as the scenic artists drew omnivorously from the world of imagery, so Sarony would omnivorously draw from every set appearing in New York City.  He was enough of a adept at the fine arts to know he could not paint the backdrops himself.   He would hire one of the scenic artists to supply him backgrounds.

 

The Problem of the Background & the Rise of Lafayette Seavy

William Kurtz, arguably the most ingenious and experimental professional portrait photographer in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s, was typically trenchant in his diagnosis of the problem of photographic backgrounds.  In 1871 he observed, “We frequently meet with the same background in twenty different pictures hanging in the same showcase.  The different persons are costumed in the greatest variety of styles, but the background alone is sufficient to show at whose atelier the pictures originated.  This is, plainly speaking, simply manufacturing pictures, and out of ten pictures perhaps only has a background correct in tone—i.e., in only one of them face and figure contrast harmoniously with the background.  This holds good not only when plain backgrounds are used, but more particularly when those that have fancy paintings on them are introduced.”[19] Kurtz pointed only to the most conspicuously frequent problem with background—its tonality was often dissonant with that of the sitter. Other problems obtruded, particularly if a photographer trained as a fine artist dared to paint his or her own backgrounds.  Common difficulties: ludicrously disproportionate background features, making the focal figure seem oddly small, or comically gigantic;  disparities  between the sitters costume and the time and place invoked in background imagery. Most damning were backgrounds whose crudity of execution made them seem so cheaply artificial that the sitter becomes déclassé by association.  [Stringer & Coffin, New Orleans: Fanny Reading.]

The weightiness of these problems caused certain photographers to eschew backgrounds, or to minimize them in the manner of the old daguerreotype artists: blank wall, a dark hang of curtain, a heavily carved chair.   The problem with the minimalist approach was its conspicuous lack of ambition, particularly when compared with those few images in which the background was ‘fancy’ and the tonal relation between foreground figure and background well handled. 

Numbers of the second generation of photographers—William Kurtz, Marc Gambier, Jose Maria Mora, Louis Thors, Benjamin J. Falk for instance—had been trained in graphic arts.  Yet few dealt with the peculiar difficulties of focus and lighting of objects on different planes. Nor had they the illusionistic expertise to made a three dimensional figure situated in the foreground harmonize with a two dimensional flat in the background creating the impression of an integral world.  Only theatrical scene painters knew how. They were the masters of ‘giving reality to ideality.’ Managers paid well for their skills; $100 a week was common for artists connected with first rank houses in major American cities, a wage eclipsing that of all but the topmost rank of photographers.  Yet several unusual scenic artists, operated free lance, setting up independent studios.  It was from among the ranks of these independents that the supreme nineteenth-century artist of the photographic background would emerge—Lafayette W. Seavey.

In 1865 New York native Seavey and Gaspard Maeder, a scene painter trained by Isherwood, opened a studio in Lafayette Place, “where the firm made a specialty of painting scenery for traveling companies.”[20]  Both men were versatile artists.  Maeder specialized in verdure—glades, gardens, and meadows. Seavey handled architecture and perspective.  Because traveling companies needed durable flats and props because of the repeated handling, Seavey and Maeder eschewed the usual water color paint used by most scenic artists, and used oils and fixed charcoal on canvas—huge rolls of canvas that they unfurled and painted at great speed.  In 1868 Seavey diversified his studio, supplying the first backgrounds for photographic work.

The timing deserves attention.  A year and a half later, Napoleon Sarony, opened his portrait studio in New York.  The ex-lithographer had spent five years in England, 1862-1866, perfecting his camera craft.  Late in 1866, he returned to New York intending to set up a manufactory for albumin photographic paper.  Within a year, he had intuited the peculiar possibilities of theatrical photography as a professional métier. Sarony knew to call upon the visual expertise of the theater itself.  His own background in the graphic arts had schooled him to a realization for such work, one availed oneself of a specialist.  He approached Seavey precisely because the artist had chosen to be entrepreneurial, setting up his own shop, rather than become a fixture at some Theater. 

In 1871 Seavey published the following advertisement in the pages of The Photographer’s Friend

PRICE $7.00

SEAVEY’S

Lastest Improved

REMBRANDT & VIGNETTE BACKGROUND

Of June 10, 1871

Remarks heard at the N.P.A. Convention

“Your Rembrandt is larger than any other used for the same purpose.”

“Costs less by $3.00.”  “Will do more work.”

“It revolves and has one more movement.”

“That swing joint is a great improvement.”

“Send me a set of irons for my old Background.”

“So you make one package 5 in. x 5 in. x 5 feet long; freight charged on that won’t be much.”

“Is it patented?”  Ans.  “No; because we are constantly improving.”

RESULTS!

Seavey returns to his Studio and combines in one Background the good qualities of the fine styles he has painted during the last three years, adding the hints suggested in conversation with the leading photographers, and the best points observed in the works of foreign exhibitors, which Background he now offers for sale at his SCENIC STUDIO.

                                                                    684 BROADWAY, NEW YORK,

                                                               And at the Leading Stock Warehouses.

First, we should note that Seavey is advertising.  Though he hasn’t abandoned the world of theatrical scene painting, he has jettisoned the guild mentality of its painter brotherhood.  The new art of photography had exploded internationally with a welter of competing methods, products, and claims.  It resorted to that mechanism that most decisively sorted the viable from the fanciful—the market—and exploited all of the accouterments of 19th-century large scale enterprise: association, print advertising, customer claims, aggressive pricing, assertions of novelty, and branding.  In this brief ad Seavey does it all.  He has a new product, a two sided background painting on a easily pivoting iron frame.  One side exploited the latest craze in portrait photography—William Kurtz’s “Rembrandt” style, with it dramatic gradation from shadow to light in a single direction across the pictorial field.  Kurtz had used a large concave disk positioned behind a sitter to achieve his effects.  A side or slightly elevated light (he initially used mirrors and a skylight to control light direction) would create shade within the near arc of the bowl and a gradated intensity to the opposite side.  Seavey achieved the same effect graphically with a gradated tonal background.  The flip side of the flat was a rustic scene drawn from Corot or another of the contemporary painters.[21] 

Seavey’s advertisement also reveals that an international demand has arisen in a short amount of time for photographic backgrounds.  Seavey recognizes the competition and commands the patronage of the reader on the grounds of lower cost, greater convenience in use, ease of shipping, technical innovation, and up to the moment aesthetic fashionability. 

As Kurtz’s critique of backgrounds indicated, background paintings existed as a standard, but lamentable, feature of the portrait scene.  The French had made them a feature of their studio imagery early in the 1850s—unsurprising given the fact the Daguerre, the father of photographer, had been a Parisian theatrical painter. But in New York in the 1860s background artists  were mediocre landscape painters such as  W. A. Ashe, not scenic artists.  What Seavey brought to the market was superior imagery, a talent for making flat surface create the illusion of depth, and spectacular variety—500 scenes by 1873.[22] Before the end of the decade he would count Sarony, Jeremiah Gurney, and Kurtz among his loyal customers, and an international clientele. Very few photographers painted their own backgrounds in house. He exhibited his wares in exhibitions in Paris in London and lectured on the art of the background at professional meetings in the United States.

As the sole background artist to have published reflections during the 19th century on the art of preparing a photographic scene, Seavey supplies as close as we can get to a theory of grounding images.  Not all that he wrote reflects on his findings about visual tact and focus, for he felt obliged to propagandize against plain backdrops:  “If you, reader, have never used anything but a plain background, never tell anybody of it, especially when away from home.  What would you think of a professed artist who painted all his landscapes with flat skies, the same strength at the top as near the horizon, and no clouds? Or of one who painted a plain flat background to all his portraits, infants as well as adults?”[23] Such moments are only telling in their exploitation of photographers’ wishes to be esteemed image makers on the same order as painters.  Seavey’s revelations come when he speaks of the qualities of effective images:

From the study of the works of freeing and native artists it seems to be an established rule that in full and three-quarter-length figures the background should be darker towards the bottom, say for one-third or one-fourth of the distance.  The effect of such shading is that the figure seems to stand more firmly, a sense of repose or quietude is imparted, and the attention of the spectator is directed unconsciously to the face.  (567)

Seavey’s way of evaluating the proportionate lighting of objects in a picture was to obscure items in the pictorial field with a piece of neutral tinted paper.  This enabled him to see quickly if things were overlit.  He demonstrated the effectiveness of the method by analyzing a celebrated picture at the Buffalo Convention of the N.P.A., showing the profile portrait of a woman in profile depended upon its effectiveness to a small pea-sized area of deep shadow on the lower left background, a depth of tonality that anchored and balanced the muted tonality of the rest of the image.[24]  This led him to the conclusion that many good pictures could be immeasurably improved by a small portion of deep shadow.  From the mid-1870s onward he painted these into backgrounds. 

        The power behind the throne in many of the composition pictures which have

        attracted the attention of the public is the back-ground—silent, substantial,

        powerful, exerting a deep and ofttimes mysterious and unrecognized influence over

        the products of the knights of the camera.  Atmosphere, delicacy, refinement,

        strength, vigor, elaborations, balance of light and shade, are imparted by the

        background.[25] 

Seavey’s characterization of the role of the background in a composed picture could well serve as a confession of his own role in late nineteenth-century Western portrait photography.  He became the common element in the works of the most eminent artists in the major cities on both sides of the Atlantic.           His advertisements declared his dominion: From 1870’s “”Our Backgrounds are now in use in the Galleries of Sarony, Brady, Kurtz, Gurney, Fredericks, and the principal galleries on this continent.” to 1881’s  “Sarony’s celebrities, also Mora’s, Anderson’s, Gibert & Bacon’s Rocher’s Lady’s, Kurtz’s etc., ad made with Seavey’s Backgrounds,” to 1888’s “All Backgrounds now in use by Falk, New York, are from our hands.” The names cited give a sense of the rise and fall of reputations.  The invariable stable dimension of aesthetic worth was a Seavey background.

How did he maintain this dominance as the ‘power behind the throne?’ First, he remained actively involved with the theater, collaborating in set designs, examining the work of the scenic artists for every New York and Boston stage.  For both his on set work and for the background paintings he employed  a factory mode of production—a shop managed for over 20 years by Charles Trembley with financial oversight handled by M. M. Govan—supported by as many as twenty workers doing fabrication, sales, and shipping of Seavey’s designs.  Another important dimension of his success was his energy as a clubman in an age when male sociability mattered.  He belonged to Sarony’s Kit-Kat Sketch Club, the Outing Club, and numerous theatrical bodies, as well as three major professional photographic associations.  He designed the parties of their meetings, played cornet in their musical entertainments, and sometimes served as master of ceremonies.  Yet his decisive advantage was a talent in cannibalizing the art, architecture, and fashion of the moment to meet the intense demand for modish piquancy by photographers.  He published “Ye Monthlie Bulletin”—a regular update of his studio’s productions in the columns of photographic periodicals beginning in 1881.  The names and numbers attest to his ability to surf the moment.  He provided furnishings to suit interior backgrounds, such as “Eastlake Steps” for townhouse interiors.  He supplied paper mache boulders to adorn his Gainsborough glades.  At the annual conventions he launched his major new looks.  During the his 30th year in business, in 1899, he premiered “Chateau du lude, the Beethoven, Mozart, The Loefler Garden, the Reynolds Terrace, When the Wind Blows from the Sea, Alma Tadema Composition, the Berlin Salon, The Waldegrave, and The Window and the Ray of Light.”[26] (9)

Seavey died in 1901, but the profession in no way saw his passing as the end of an aesthetic approach.  Thirty four years of designs and accessories were sold at auction on March 9, 1903, with the entire estate purchased and divided equally among New York’s Rough & Caldwell company and Boston’s Packard Brothers.[27] The estate included a vast trove of negatives and photographs—his sample images of the various paintings he offered. These he would ship off to prospective buyers. One wonders what happened to these images without the foreground celebrity.  In a sense they would be the truest expression of Seavey’s own sense of the importance of his contribution to the art of photography. Background as foreground, so you can see the place where the mood lived.[28] 

Seavey’s output throughout his life divided between generic images, landscapes and interiors inflected by European and America fine art painting, and recreations, backgrounds modeled on the sets of specific plays and shows. Each created specific ranges of effects in portraits and tableaux. 

 

The Phantasmal Parlor

One of Seavey’s steady customers, Henry Rocher (1826-1887), became the photographic poet of the splendid interior.  The German-born photographer had opened his Chicago Studio in 1862 and by 1870 had earned a reputation as one of the finest portraitists in the country.  Using a Dallmeyer #2B lens, which he secured in 1866, his performing arts portraits of women in interiors, managed a sense of artfulness, despite the longer exposure times required by this rectilinear lens. 

Rocher’s hallmarks were few: a penchant for ¾ and full length images, the use of real furniture (not prop furniture) and expensive rugs, the establishment of depth of field by having things arranged on several planes in the pictorial field, an expressive dynamism in posing, single source natural lighting, an avoidance of strong tonal contrast, and a playful tension between the painted and the real.  The level of décor was pitched at the fashionable urbanity of American high society rather than European aristocracy.  The level or ornament and design of the sitter’s dress usually harmonized with that of the parlor. 

The extraordinary abundance of dress on the women performers he portrayed made Rocher the central celebrant of the second age of female theatrical portraiture.  If the first age was characterized by the scanty dress of the burlesque queens Lydia Thompson and Pauline Markham, the second age  was characterized by a riot of raiment

"Photography may be said to have passed through that early and barbaric condition in which its art like that of the prize butcher’s, was merely an exhibition of flesh and ribbons.  We next find it given wholly to clothes.  It was the renaissance of raiment, and true to the violent nature of their sex, the beauties who had previously risen superior to all covering except such as fitted them as tightly as their own cuticle, now hastened to hide themselves in abysses of drapery.  The nude Venus of the ballet became for the eye a cataract of clothes.  The torrent of her decoration tumble from her shoulders and leap in luxuriant waves from her waist and spread out in affluent billows of train over the adjacent country.  Give the photographer but the veriest hint of an anatomy and he would hang upon it a drama of dress whose voluptuous mysteries stunned the very sense  The amazed eye of art travelled in its exploration up a Mississippi of skirt before it reached the small island of physiognomy, and to the philosophic mind it really seemed that the faintest nucleus of woman shed an interminable tail of drapery much as a comet sheds nebulae.  This was the era of decoration in which Heaven was believed to be a state of unrestrained haberdashery, and every sister who desired to be immortalized by the artist held with the ancient Egyptians that she must be swaddled in miles of cloth."[29] 

To normalize the extravagance of dress, the backgrounds had to be sufficiently elaborate to prevent a lady’s train from tyrannizing a viewer’s eyes.  The Seavey background painting for Rocher’s 1873 portrait of the Croatian soprano Ilma deMurska  accomplished this. [Rocher-Ilma deMurska] The trompe d’ oil relief-carved wainscoting, the sublime Italian-style landscape wallpaper, the faux drape hang to the left all possess sufficient textural character to make the pleats and petals of the diva’s dress seem a part of a whole.  (The monochromaticism of the dress, tonally concordant with the fall of blonde hair, aids in making the viewers see deMurska as an integral visual object amid the tonal play of the background.)  The rug sloping toward the viewer forms the foreground, the fall of fringe on the daybed defines the intermediate plane of the picture—the field of focus—and the wall teasingly presents both  a back plane and an illusory depth of field as the landscape recedes into a perspective point that deMurska’s standing figure supplants.  The focus is upon her. 

Seavey’s talent painting two dimensional surfaces to suggest receding interior space appears in its teasing best in Rocher’s portrait of a seated Emily Rigl, a performer who began her career as one of the daring dancers wearing next to nothing in the ballets in “The Black Crook” and “Ixion.” [Rocher: Emily Rigl] At the time of the sitting (ca. 1871) she desired to put her buffo past behind and secure roles as a legitimate actress.  So she dons the yards of dress, and gives the coy, somewhat mischievous direct eyed smile that was the stock-in-trade of soubrette characters.  An opened enveloped peeks from under her chair.  She obviously clutches a letter to her breast, a token of a conquest? The Eastlake interior decoration cues a suburban, propertied milieu for Miss Rigl, stylish, domestic, and not forbiddingly patrician.  The single tea cup indicates that the onlooker has caught her in a privy moment. 

The illusion of receding space in this scene depended upon perspectival tricks (shading. shifting represented perspective lines) painted onto the flat background. Rocher’s placement of the tabard table, Rigl’s chair, and tea table at three different distances from the camera rendered the sense of depth emphatic. These furnishings also discretely obscured the horizon line at the base of the wall that would have revealed that the background was a s flat painted drop.

Rocher’s several portraits of the elfin Maggie Mitchell, an actress who triumphed in one of the great ingénue roles of the mid-19th century, “Fanchon the Cricket,” revealed a virtuoso at radiating emotion in an arrested pose.  [Rocher-Maggie Mitchell] Though a tad under 5 feet tall, Mitchell projected presence so vibrantly, that scale became irrational in her portraits; she always loomed.  In the first image she freezes, stunned in the instant of confrontation with an unseen provocation..  The war between escape (the turn away of her body) and compulsion (the fixed startle of her eyes to a point left of the viewer), made the power of emotion dramatic.  Her agitation was rendered emblematic in the agitated line of her silhouette, the complex profile of the chair to her right, and the knotted curves of the ogee framed mirror and ewer to her right.  Seavey’s backdrop operated more as a frame than a correlative of the subject’s emotion. (He sold doorframes, set in flats painted as patterned walls).  In the second portrait, Mitchell looks at the viewer over her left should while exiting a room.  [Rocher-Maggie Mitchell] The portrait, taken during the time Mitchell developed the role of Jane Eyre for McVickers in Chicago,  shows her interrupted while in the process of heading outdoors (the hat betokens street wear).  The door that she fills sits in an angled wall with a far hallway wall paralleling the plant of the viewer.  The angle of the wall and the torsion of her posture conveys the self-possession of Mitchell acknowledging the viewer momentarily while engaged in some project. The sobriety of tone of her street dress plays against its ornate collar, hems, and bustle guard. She is the mistress of the space she occupies, but is intent on projecting her presence in other realms. 

Rocher repeatedly won awards for his work, the foremost listed on the blazon printed on the reverse on his cabinet cards. These included the Gold medal at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the Gold Medal in “Art and Technic” at the world exhibition at Amsterdam in 1877.  His artistry as a portraitist won a sufficient measure of fame in the profession that in 1902 Wilson’s Photographic Magazine published a suite of eighteen of his portraits inviting comment from camera artists of a subsequent generation to critique his work.  The selection featured numbers of interiors without Seavey backgrounds, just furnishings and sets.  But two of the most impressive portraits, and two Seavey exteriors appeared among the selection.  The editor noted “Those who have been trained in the severely simple styles now prevailing will find grievous fault in the number and obtrusiveness of the accessories and the consequent crowding of the picture space.”[30] Of the number of persons who commented, the majority critiqued as expected, chiding the ornamentalism and detail of the portraits.  Some found the poses too pronounced, not realizing that the sitters were actresses or singers conveying emotional intensity rather than the naturalness and poise that concerned professional portraitists at the turn of the twentieth century.  The single most interesting observation from the five photographers who critiqued Rocher was his singular adeptness in the treatment of hands. 

None of the 1902 critiques understood Rocher’s particular brilliance in terms of subordinating masses of visual details in harmonized orders—a talent akin to that of a designer of oriental rugs. [Rocher: Bella Pateman]  The large, slightly out of focus background of Seavey painted faux tiles and grass decorated painted panels supplied a background rhythm—a half note visual ostinato against which the 16th and 32nd notes of Bella Pateman’s dress pattern, sleaves, and fan holes  provide.  Yes there is a lot of visual information in Rocher’s portrait, but there is no visual cacophony, rather dense fugal orders.  It was no less effective in conveying the nervous vitality of a leading lady whom contemporaries characterized as “intelligent” and “painstaking” rather than passionate or gripping.[31]  Rocher’s genius lay in his knowledge of how far in front of the backdrop to place Pateman, and how to array the toe of the white slipper, the ivory fans, lace cuffs and face to give the highlights an architecture. 

One might object aesthetically to the busyness of this visual world, just as one might object to the density of baroque polyphony in the instrumental music of Corelli; these objections however in now way disprove efficacy of the style to achieve the ends that it pursued.  Indeed a greater virtuosity might be manifested in the tactful handling of an extraordinary range of detail than the apt presentation of a sitter in a featureless tonal background, a la Pirie MacDonald in 1902. 

The pictured interiors—the painted walls, alcoves, window seats, casement windows –offered what the burgeoning print world of fashionable life (Godey’s Lady’s Book, Peterson’s, Lady’s Friend, Charles Locke Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste) defined as the image of domestic gentility.  Yet the picture behind the picture was something more than a class or style marker.  Scenic artists such as Seavey worked parallel to the architects and proto-interior decorators in the creation of the visual texture of the times.  Eastlake’s muting of color in décor suited the photographic medium, that depend on tone to convey scene.  The hallmarks of Eastlake interior style—wood paneling and wooded neo gothic furniture, ornamentation that tended to geometry or abstract floral patterns, small repeated detail in carving or trim—because of its  verticality and rectilinearity made the curving figures of women stand out in an interior.  Seavey understood its particular visual advantages for interior scenes featuring adult women swathed in volumes of skirt and cinched in tight, form fitting bodices.  Rocher, too, grasped the point and in his portraits including objects that reiterated the curves of the central figure—a chair leg, the handle of a ewer, the sway back of a day bed. 

What distinguishes Rocher as a portraitist was the insistence with which he visualized female performers in upscale domestic settings at a time when the theater ranged promiscuously through fantasy and history in its portrayal of scene.  He eschewed the palaces, plantation porticoes, tenements, convents and other stock settings favored by the stage. (The great age of drawing room drama would come after Rocher’s death in 1887.) Given the peripatetic and sometimes volatile lives of actresses, in which hotels and boarding houses constituted a goodly percentage of their accommodation, the stylish household may have been the cherished wish of an 1870s performer.  Rocher provided a visualization of what the sitter desired in terms of her own life.  There is no better way to enlist the enthusiastic cooperation of a sitter than to cast her in her own dream—a dream in which respectability radiated from the image as well as one’s talent. 

 

Woman in a Hundred Landscapes

The sort of fanciful insertion of a sitter into an exotic locale by use of costume and background that Rocher avoided became a specialty of Jose Maria Mora, the Cuban-born painter and photographer trained in theatrical portraiture by Napoleon Sarony from 1867 to 1870. Mora took theatrical portraits, and he exploited the visual liberties of the theatrical work to develop a sideline business of portraying the wives of plutocrats masquerading as storybook princesses, houris, Greek nymphs, or Egyptian slave girls.  These fantasy scenes sometimes completed the triumph a woman had in costuming for one of the High Society charity masquerades  by supplying a background suited to an effective outfit.  Mora visually installs ‘Russian Princess’ Mrs. F. R. Jones into a imaginary Russian aristocratic interior, combining folk motif carved wainscots with  stained glass blazoned with Russian imperial emblems. [Mora: Mrs. F. R. Jones.] Stained glass had enjoyed a new vogue in the 1870s because of the revival efforts of  J. & R. Lamb Studios of New York and the display of new English stained glass in the Centennial Exhibition by John Hardiman Powell of Liverpool.  

Mora employed Seavey’s backgrounds more intensively than any other photographer in the country, adding as many as two per month to his stock.[32] Many of the backdrops were custom ordered to Mora’s specifications, and indeed, Seavey sold a number of the best of these designs—“Mora Seascape”-so close was the relationship.  Whether it was Mora or Seavey who specified that a Byzantine solomonic twisted column appear at left of the background we cannot tell; what we do know is that Seavey’s knowledge of historic architecture from various regions  was sufficiently encyclopedic for him to have proposed it; Mora’s penchant for oriental scenes would have equipped him to make specificiations.  The extravagant lengths to which Seavey and Mora’s explorations of represented architecture may be seen in a number of images generated for Maud Harrison, an actress who emerged in the mid-1870s and became a popular star for the Palmer Company and for Daniel Frohman.  Her girl next door looks required some mystification if we are to judge by Mora’s response to the challenge of representing her.  Wearing an elaborate house dress, Harrison fondles a plant at the central bay of open projecting second story window in the Eastlake style while locking eyes with the viewer whose presumed position is not quite level with her, suspending in air, fifteen feet off grade at least. [Mora: Maud Harrison-Eastlake Window]  A façade of townhouses recedes in sharp perspective to indistinctness to her right.  The brilliance of the illusionary space is conveyed while the painterly character of the street scene is indicated by the tonal flatness of the painted shadows cast by the architectural details around the window.  Wearing the same dress, Harrison stands at the head of a stair in a colonnaded stone hall of large dimension.  European, palatial, and definitely not a New York townhouse.  Seavey’s painting represents three parallel planes of architectural depth.  Mora poses Harrison so that her hand appears to rest on the painted balustrade of the stairwell.  [Mora: Maud Harrison, colonnade] The absence of the stairs themselves breaks the illusion . . .  if one notices.  Harrison has been placed so centrally in the onlooker’s view by the arrangement of represented architectural elements, that one does not notice that she is about to descend a stairway entirely lacking steps.  The imposing surroundings lend Maud Harrison an aura of eminence.

Mora knew how to use setting to convey qualities of a sitter.  Yet he was hardly constrained by the sitter’s notions of what qualities to convey.  Indeed Mora’s visual imagination was one of the first driven by what might be called the photogenic potentials of a subject.  For Mora a photogenic man or woman never suggested one thing, but a multiplicity of roles, moods, personalities.  When the ‘Professional Beauty’ emerged in the 1870s, with Lily Langtry providing the model, Mora became America’s most tireless visual explorer of where beauty might take one.  His signal contribution to the moment was his realization that in the realm of photography historionic ability—the quality that rocketed Langtry, Mary Anderson, and  Lotta Crabtree to transatlantic fame—did not much matter.  There were a class of persons who possessed beauty but little capacity to vocalize or gesture, that could be made to appear the most alluring, mysterious, and myriad-souled sorts of beings in camera set ups.  From the ranks of chorines and aspirant singers Mora recruited a series of women—Maude Branscombe, Venie Clancey, Minnie Palmer, Blanche Roosevelt and Lizzie Webster—whom he made celebrities.  The curious dimension of Mora’s engagement with the appearance of these women is how he made them resemble one another, facially, while making each the focus of a kaleidoscopic variety of settings.  It would seem that an ideal visage inspired an erotic interest that fired. An index of the intensity of the fire was the extremity of the difference in the set up. 

Maude Branscombe’s face exerted a peculiar fascination for Mora, and after Mora, Sarony.  The New York Public Library has posted a digital gallery of 65 bust shots of Branscombe, head covered in a bewildering variety of hats, scarves, burnooses, habits, bonnets, and headdresses. [http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchresult.cfm?keyword...

Mora determined that the right side of Branscombe’s face presented her to best advantage, and that the soulfulness of her eyes registered most powerfully when she gazed intently at something off to the right of or above the viewer. So there is that darked eyed almond face appearing as a Scots lassie, a novice, a Jewish bride, a sailor girl, a milk maid, an English townswoman.  The Houghton Library’s Theater collection abounds in full figure cabinet cards with her in fanciful surroundings impersonating classic characters: Ophelia, Little Red Riding Hood, Fanchon the Cricker, Hebe in H.M.S. Pinafore, and an angel.  [Maude Branscombe as Ophelia] Mora’s Ophelia image showed just how much could be done by a camera artist of genius to fashion a compelling scene.  On the negative Mora had dissolved portions of Seavey’s background landscape, He has put the immediate foreground and the distant background out of focus.  Ophelia/Branscombe lies stretched out on the surface of the water.  Parts of her sleeve have slipped beneath the water’s surface.  Mora has painted over the picture in the picture to eradicate horizon to make Ophelia’s unnatural suspension on top of the water that much more uncanny.  Branscombe’s face is impassive. She stares at something in the viewers vicinity, but not the viewer.  She may be staring into the next world.   

Venie Clancy, who played Josephine in the D’Oyley Carte version of H.M.S. Pinafore, was of that class of professional beauty whose looks mattered more than her modest terpsichorean and thespian skills.  Contemporary commentators indicated that she had two stage attitudes, saucy and demur, that tragedy was beyond her ken, and that she had the disconcerting power to pull the audience’s eyes to her in scenes, whether the script made her central or not.  These problems did not effect her photographic impersonations.  Her portrait as Josephine once again shows Mora employing out of focus foreground objects to frame the middle distance which Clancy dominates. [Mora-VenieClancy-Josephine-“H.M.S. Pinafore”] The tumults of the painted ocean supply an objective correlative to the emotion Clancy is supposed to inspire in the onlooker.    An odd effect of Mora’s decision to make the painted character of the water obvious is the heightening of the shapely three-dimensionality of the central figure.  Mora had a choice in his manner of presenting the image.  If he had given the background less exposure, or used lighting deflectors to give the seascape more shadow and contrast, it would have appeared more real.  Dull verisimilitude was not Mora’s aim; rather the presentation of beauty in a manner that renders it unfamiliar, somehow appearing in a place between the imagined realm of art and the quotidian world the viewer inhabits. 

The more familiar the surroundings, for Mora, the greater likelihood that he would dress the sitter in a costume whose eye-dazzling complexity or tonal scheme marked it as something different than anything the ordinary woman would wear.  Venie Clancy sits coyly on a fence rail bordering a woodlot. [Mora-VenieClancy-VergeoftheWoodlot] She wears a ruffled outfit whose brevity, bold black and white color scheme, and sleeves show it to be stage dress.  (The same dress proves to be suitable for a jaunt to Egypt in another cabinet card.)  In the woodland scene Mora once again played with the bounds between artifice and accurate reproduction. Seavey painted the background drop to give the impression of an actual glade when viewed from a more than fifteen foot focal point.   But Mora placed Clancy right in front of the drop and shot her from 12 feet away.  He realized such proximity might make the bottom of the backpainting visible, so her placed a tangle of vegetation next to Clancy in front of the fence.  The bole of the large tree to Clancy’s left looks painted; those to her right appear impressionistically real.  Once again, beauty existed in the zone where art and actuality commingle. 

Mora’s commitment to making the hand of the artist visible reached its extravagant limit in a genre scene entitled “Solitude” featuring Annie Russell.  [16-Mora-Annie Russell, Solitude] Using the gestural brushstrokes characteristic of scenic artists (strokes designed to blend in the eye at a distance), Annie clasps an actual oar in a paint boat in a painted wetland.  No demarcation of background, foreground, and sitter appears, so the setting had to have been painted directly onto the glass negative.  Mora had studied painting in the ateliers of Paris before summoned to New York in 1867 by a family fleeing political turmoil in Cuba. He trained as a photographer under Sarony, a graphic artist who felt no hesitation retouching, repainting, and tinting his portraits.  After Sarony, none who aspired to artistry in the representation of mimetic artists felt constrained to maintain the mechanical proprieties of photographic reproduction.  Sarony, Mora, Marc Gambier (another Parisian-trained painter who subbed under Sarony), Benjamin Falk, Jacob Schloss—all the New York-based theatrical photographers of the 1870s and 1880s understood their task to be the enhancement of the imperfect representational capacities of photography by art.  “There are many beauties of colour and expression which cannot be rendered by the agency of the camera.  Colour of hair, colour of the complexion generally, of the lips, the cheeks, they eyes, these go for nothing; and as to expression, the most expressive countenances suffer most invariably; a little happy touch of expression is a phenomenon one hardly ever remembers to have seen caught in a photographic portrait.” By lighting, by coaching the sitter’s poses, by surrounding a subject with a congenial visual environment, by retouching the negative, by  tinting the print the artistic photographers strove to give the finished portraits the same eloquence that the best painted portraits did: an arresting semblance of  appearance and intimations of the subjects internal qualities.  The desire to convey personality, rather than an ideal or type of person, was paramount.  Mora’s picture of Annie Russell convey’s a young woman seeking a place where she experiences solitude.  She is not an allegory embodying the idea of solitude.  Indeed Mora has painted the sitter’s name on the front board of the boat to reinforce her humanity. 

The curious feature of Mora’s portraits is the fixity of self amid the myriad of surroundings.  Indeed, there is a sense in which the task of state performers—impersonation—is subverted in Mora’s wish to see the sitter professing beauty.  The distinctiveness of his approach is best seen in his portraits of Mary Anderson, a handsome actress with a titanic range of emotion when portraying characters on the stage. [17-Mora: Mary Anderson] Mora does not portray these emotions.  Instead he captures her in dispassionate moments, a self-possess repose, a default self that shows her beauty as her fundamental state of being.  How fundamental this state is for his favorite sitters can be seen in the enduring radiance of the persons features amid a bewildering variety of surroundings.  There is a kind of anti-idealism in Mora’s insistent visualization in scene after scene of the reproduced faces and figures amid the fanciful locales that he or Seavey painted as contexts.   The reiterations of the ‘real’ loveliness anchor the fluid worlds that mutate behind and in front of the sitter.

Napoleon Sarony, while a celebrant of beauty, did not regard it as the pivot of the world he represented.  He was interested in what actors and actresses could do, inhabiting scripted roles, without entirely sacrificing their individual personalities.  His pictures of Mary Anderson  [18-Sarony: Mary Anderson-Parthenia] reveal a passionate soul, a seductress, a prideful matriarch, a betrayed wife, a God-smitten visionary.  If Mora identified beauty as the signature of an actress and the substrate of selfhood, connecting her inner and outer being, and preexisting any emotion or intellection, Sarony focused upon the mystery of a selfhood that found expression in its capacity to reshape itself to visions of character, fate, and motivation imposed by scene and script.  Sarony portrayed impersonation.

 

Napoleon Sarony and the Tableaux

When Sarony opened his operation at 680 Broadway in late 1866, his aspiration was to rival E. & H. T. Anthony as a manufacturer of photographic paper; portraiture would be a sideline. He quickly discovered that the photographic supply business was more cutthroat and less secure than he had anticipated, while his reputation as a draughtsman and man of taste brought performing artists to his door seeking portraits.  Two sets of images established his fame: a suite of images of Adah Isaacs Menken taken in England, including some risqué drape shots recalling her body stocking ride strapped to a stallion in “Mazeppa,” that became the ‘rarest’ sort of visual commodity when Mencken died in Europe in August 1868.  Almost as important were “a number of studies of Madame Ristori and her beautiful daughter, some of which are positively marvelous in their resemblance to real, living, breathing vitality. “[33]  Ristori arrived in New York in autumn 1867 while on her second American tour. The sets for her primary vehicle, “Marie Antoinette,” had been misdirected en route from South America.[34] Her already volcanic emotive powers as a tragedienne poured forth unrestrained, so that the audience would not notice the inappropriate scenery. She performed in Italian. She was middle-aged, plain of face, a touch broad in the beam—not at all the buffo beauty that the extravaganzas had made the rage in post-Civil War New York.  Yet when Sarony saw her, she seemed more alive than anyone on the stage.  He approached her for a sitting, costumed as Marie Antoinette against a bare wall with a fragment of a drape and a table to her left. [19-Sarony-Madame Ristori-Marie Antoinette] Her twisted posture, the hands thoughtlessly seeking to steady herself, the upturned matronly face eloquent with consternation.  In the years of mourning after the War, it appeared an emblem of maternal feeling.  (In the play Marie/Ristori is more concerned with the fate of her daughters at the hands of the Revolutionaries than her own head.)

Sarony’s earliest images (1868-1872) of the great tragedians in costume (Ristori, Edwin Booth, Tomasso Salvini, Mrs. Scott Siddons) escheweded backgrounds, concentrating on the facial expression and pose of the sitter.  Only when portraying sitters in modern dress did Sarony include contextual furnishings—a carved chair, an elaborate wardrobe, a modest background painting of a casement window.  The dynamism of Sarony’s posing was the primary recommendation over similar images by Gurney & Son, David Anderson, and Charles DeForest Fredericks.  Representing comic performers turned his mind to supplying something more than a generic background and caused him to revive Laroche’s approach to performing arts photography.  In 1870, Joseph Jefferson approached Sarony to supply illustrative photographs for an edition of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winckle: A Legend of the Kaatskill Mountains, the source for his most famous stage character.  Henry L. Hinton included four Sarony carbon prints of Jefferson in costume  with no background in the edition.  The locale has always been supremely important to this tale, and its significance was concretely demonstrated in the several engravings by F. O. C. Darley and Augustus Hoppin included in the volume.  Their presence made Sarony’s prints seem half measures.  It was at this juncture that Sarony contracted the talents of Lafayette F. Seavey.  Beginning in 1870, he specified kinds of scenes appropriate for particular costumed characters—a seascape for Edwin Adams playing Enoch Arden, a woody copse for Sydney Cowell playing Rosalind in “As You Like It”—that did not reproduce the plays scenic design.  These portraits immediately elevated Sarony to the first place among portraitists.

Because of the ingenuity and visual tact of Seavey’s backgrounds, and because of Sarony’s knowledge of focal distance, lighting, retouching, and negative painting, this style of image would have under ordinary circumstances dominated the market for celebrity images for a decade, if a rival had not emerged from the ranks of Sarony’s employees who knew the master’s methods, hired the same background painter, and had access to the world of the stage that Napoleon Sarony did—Jose Maria Mora.  By 1872 Mora had set up an independent studio, had secured his first Seavey backgrounds, and began celebrating beauty rather than histrionic expression.   By late 1874 Mora had forced Sarony to conceive the next development in performing arts photography, the tableaux.

The tableaux was in Sarony’s hands the recreation of key scenes of the major plays in serial still cabinet images.  Their first sale in March 1875 inspired press accolades.

The justly celebrated photographic artist, Sarony, has lately originated the novel mode of classifying the leading dramatic events of this city in a series of exquisite sun pictures of each and every actor engaged in a play, taken en tableau, with a masterly reproduction of all the surroundings.  So perfect as these “sun-strokes” in every detail, both of dress and position, that in looking at them on is, as it were, transferred to the auditorium, and looking upon the life-scenes they delineate.  The first two of the series are devoted to the portrayal of the leading “selections” in the present highly-successful plays of The Two Orphans and The Shaughraun.[35] 

To recreate the scenes in his studio, Sarony commissioned Seavey to copy William Voegtlin’s scenary for “The Two Orphans” and John Mazanovich’s for “The Shaughraun.”  He brought the principles from the companies into his new studio at 37 Union Square, had them dress in costume, and reenacted passages of the plays under his skylights.       A snowy Paris in the age of Revolution, rustic Ireland in the era of political troubles—a series of images from Dion Boucicault’s comic melodrama suggest that most if not all if Mazzanovich’s scenes were reproduced [20-22-Sarony: The Shaughraun-Josie Baker; Madame Ponisi; Ione Burke].  While the original sets and sketches for most of the work of the major scenic artists perished, they survive second hand in the tableaux of the 1870s and 1880s, and the Falk’s scene stills of the 1880s and Joseph Byron’s and Joseph Hall’s stills of the 1890s.  An archaeology of American scenic design could be attempted for the final quarter of the 19th century using cabinet cards.

Sarony in 1875 printed “dramatic tableaux” under his name on the blazons printed on the back of his cards.  He produced a memorable series of these serial image evocations of players and plays: Augustus Daly’s 1875 hits “Pique,” and “Big Bonanza,”[36] and Charles Calvert’s wild attempt to meld Byron’s poetry and the ballet extravaganza form, “Sardanapalus” (1876).  This last piece, adapted from a poem on an Assyrian potentate of Byronic stripe, proved an extremely controversial, yet popular work, provoking the attacks of the American literati for its lack of dramatic conflict, or, indeed plot, while presently extravagant and indeed unparalleled spectacle. Calvert’s drawings of the monuments and artifacts that Layard unearthed at Ninevah and shipped back to the England Museum.  “Here Calvert made his studies and from his sketches Telbin and Hahn produced their superb scenery.”[37] Based in London, William Telbin and Walter Hahn, stood in the front rank of British theatrical designers and were particularly associated with the productions of Henry Irving.  The spectacle element of Sardanapalus, therefore, was a primer on the new transatlantic historicism. Seavy’s backpainting for Sarony’s portrait of Frank C. Bangs as the Assyrian hero indicates how the Telbin & Hahn sets presented an archaeological tour de force with ranks of bearded, winged bull gods and crouching lions. [23-Sarony-Sardanapalus, Frank J. Bangs].  Bangs is dressed more in the style of a generic Barbarian, yet offers a plausible image of manliness. 

The visual splendor of the Sarony tableaux provoked consternation among his rivals in the celebrity and theatrical portrait trade. Instantly, major studios took up the form, attempting to stage plays in studios with variable success.  Mora, always intent on direct challenge, created his own tableaux for “The Two Orphans.” George Rockwood created tableaux for “Maytime,” George K. Warren of Boston for the opera bouffe “Evangeline,” “Exiles”  and for “Pique,” Elmer Chickering of Boston for “Antony & Cleopatra,” Thomas Houseworth in San Francisco doing “Hazel Kirke.” The expenditure for furnishings and paintings made to order restricted this genre of cabinet photograph to only the most ambitious and well equipped studios. Because these images could be sold in the theaters as souvenirs of the play, they had a ready occasion of purchase, unlike many of the performer portraits that were hawked at newsstands.  If the professional beauty portraits of Mora and the characters of Sarony tended heavily toward the depiction of women, the tableaux presented the much more evenly mixed gender world of the stage. 

Because the tableaux benefited from the collaboration of at least three very accomplished artists--Sarony, Seavey, and the scenic artist who envisioned the original set design—they impressed contemporary viewers as a supremely expressive medium benefitting from a schooled pictorial sensibility.  “The characters are not only caught in the moment of impersonation, but are accompanied by the appropriate scene.  The photographs are thus literal pictures of the play. . . .So strong is the characterization of these photographs and so admirable do they tell the story of the play while they fix the endeavor of the player, that they may be said to constitute a new advance in dramatic photography.”[38]

Performers registered the intensely positive response to the tableaux form and began to demand a more richly elaborated visual context for their character portraits.  This meant more trade for Seavey, and tempted others to become adept at representing the conjured visual worlds of the stage.  Whether Gilbert & Bacon in Philadelphia, Baker Art Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, Benjamin Falk and Jacob Schloss in New York, Joseph Gehrig in Chicago, Louis Thors in San Francisco, or Simon L. Stein in Milwaukee, ambitious portraitists employed elaborate backgrounds that recalled hit plays. One consequence of the spread of these elaborated visual scenes was the demand among the general public to be viewed in as elaborate a setting as performers.  We have already seen how Mora developed a side specialty in depicting the costumed wives of  city moghuls in exotic settings.  The 1880s saw a fashion for high style interiors a la Rocher and Gainsborough glades. When demand became ubiquitous painters entered into the ranks of the background artists who had none of the knowledge of visual subordination of objects necessary for an effective scene.  Instead, they painted pretty pictures, and a horde of portrait artists in every town in the country purchased.  The obtrusive ornate back painting became the plague of American portraiture.  In 1888 critic G. Hanmer Croughton asked the question that marked a turn in taste: “Who is responsible for the outrages on common sense and taste thrust upon the market as photographic backgrounds?”[39]  Instead of giving a proper value to the principle object of a portrait, the sitter’s face, the elaborate backgrounds distract and detract.  Within the critical community and among the ‘amateur’ movement in photography--The Stieglitz contingent—the imperative to simplify portraiture and the redirection of interest from the full figure to the face became the hallmark of artistry in the new aesthetic photography. 

Because of the scenic warrant for the scenes in performing arts portraiture, it remained true to the ideal of the scenic portrait of a performer in character until World War 1.  Herman Mishkin, portraitist of the Metropolitan Opera, and Ira L. Hill, the society and theatrical portraitists were the last champions of the form in the period 1914-1917 in New York City.  The need for the tableaux, the seriated depicted of play scenes reconstructed in the studio, saw a slow demise and transmutation occasioned by the perfection of in theatre production still photography by Benjamin Falk, using electric light from 1883 to 1894, and Joseph Byron, using Magnesium flash photography from 1889 to 1910.  The still did not entirely supplant studio reconstitution of scenes during the 1890s because newspapers, which became the primary consumers of stage pictures during the final decade of the century, could not reproduce all the detail of stage pictures legibly.  So for the period 1890 to 1905 a new form of tableaux showing  performers in costumes miming their positions and inter-relations on stage against a blank white background.  Otto Sarony, son of Napoleon pioneered these relational tableaux. Jonathan and Ernest Burrow, who purchased Sarony studio, were their principle exponents until the form expired with the cabinet card in 1910.




[1] Richard Foulkes, ‘The Laroche Photographs of Charles Kean’s Shakespeare Revivals’, Theatrephile (London) 2:issue 8 [1987], 29–33. R. Derrick Wood, “’Martin Laroche’ was not Canadian,” History of Photography 20, 4 (Winter 1996), 371-73.

[2] Richard Schoch, “Performing History on the Victorian Stage,” in Rumiko Handa and James Potter, Conjuring the Read: The Role of Architecture in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 121; also, Richard W.  Schoch, Shakespeare’s Victorian Stage: Performing History in the Theatre of Charles Kean (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Perss, 1998), 46-51, 99-100, 114-15, 143-49.

[3] As part of his advertising blazon on the verso of the cabinet card, Sarony added to his printed signature ‘Dramatic Tableaux’ to emphasize the central importance of this line of imagery to his work.

[4] “Scene Painters and their Art,” New York Herald (March 1, 1896). 

[5] “How a Play is Produced,” American Magazine 36 ( 1893, 619

[6] While a number of influential theatrical costumers were women, not one woman is known to have been a scenic artist in the United States during the nineteenth century.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Art on the Stage: The Labors of the Scene Painter,” New York Herald (December 27, 1880).

[9] John P. Ritter, “Scene Painting as a Fine Art,” Cosmopolitan 8(1890), 45-48.

[10] “Art on the Stage,” New York Herald (December 27, 1880). 

[11] “About Scene Painting,” New York Herald (April 12, 1892).

[12] “James Roberts,” Obituary, New York Times (March 22, 1892). “Famous Scene Painters,” Worcester Spy

[13] Review, New York Times, March 29, 1891, 4.  Reprinted in Felicia Londre, Love’s Labour’s Lost Critical Essays (London: Routledge, 1997), 350.

[14] “Scene Painters and their Art,” New York Herald (March 1, 1896); “Stage Scenery Painters,” Theatre Magazine 8 (1908), 230.

[15] “John Mazzanovich,” Appleton’s Annual Cyclopedia 26 (New York: Appleton, 1887), 691. “John Mazzanovich’s Death,” New York Times, June 10, 1886.

[16] Minard Lewis, New York Herald.  The history of Lewis’s early career provided in

[17] Edith Davis, “Modern Stage Effects,” Munsey’s Magazine 25 (1901), 530.

[18] “Hoyt, Henry E.,” Gerald Bordman and Thomas S. Hischak, The Oxford Companion to the American Theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004 3rd edition), 322. 

[19] Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, Handbook of the Practice and Art of Photography (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson, 1871),  309.

[20] Maeder, Gaspard,” Appleton’s annual Cyclopadia and register of Important Events 17 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1893), 558.

[21] “Our Illustration,” Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin 25 (1894), 91.

[22]John Towler, The Silver Sunbeam (New York: E. &. H. T. Anthony,  1873), 602.

[23] “Backgrounds and their Uses,”  The British Journal of Photography (Nov. 27, 1874), 569.

[24] “Backgrounds and their Uses [2],” The Photographic News (September 17, 1875),  452-53.

[25] “Backgrounds: a Review,” Photographic Mosaics, 106-07. 

[26] The Photo-Beacon 9 (1899), 188.

[28]These photographs were taken throughout the 1880s by Frank Scott Clark , who began his career as a painter for Seavey and sitinguished himself by his constant experiment with the light interactions with painted surfaces.  Seavey noted Clark’s attentiveness to lighting and had him photograph all the drops, sets, and background paintings sent for clients.  During Napoleon Sarony’s visits to the Seavey’s studio he noted Clark’s camera work, offered him an assistant’s position at his studio. He worked for Sarony several years. He went independent in the 1890s, working as both photographer and manufacturer of photographic props, until deciding to move to Detroit where after the turn of the 20th century he became a significant portraitist and art photographer.  “From Boat Painter to Art Photographer,” Springfield Republican, July 15, 1919, 7.

[29] “Theatric Photographer,” The World, March 19, 1875.

[30] “American Portraiture Twenty-Five Years Ago,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine 39 (March 1902), 97.

[31] “The Stage,” The Academy (November 4, 1876), 462.

[32] Professor Greene, “Can Photography Make Pictures?” The Photographic News 21 May 25, 1877), 244. 

[33] Sarony Scrapbook, 1870s-1880s, Houghton Library, Harvard University, 13. 

[34] Memoirs and Artistic Studies of Adelaide Ristori, trans. G. Mantellint (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1907), 95.

[35] “Dramatic Sun Strokes,” Spirit of the Times (March 20, 1875).

[36] Some of the interior scenes for “Big Bonanza,” however, used generic backgrounds, exterior scenes, custom painted.

[37] Jarrett & Palmer,  “Sardanapalus, a Card from Jarrett & Palmer, New York Herald, August 27, 1876, 9.

[38]“ Theatric Photographer,”  The World (March 19, 1875).

[39] “Photographic Backgrounds,” American Journal of Photography Vol. 10, 2 (February 1888), 53-55.