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Theatrical Portraiture and the Pathognomy of Performance

How did theatrical photographic recognize a different subject in portraiture than celebrity or society photography?

David S. Shields

“Vice and crime darken the souls which sit behind the eyes—make chins hard, and lips thin or coarse—destroy curves which are upon all lips when innocent; yet to me, the most demoniac face that ever peered out upon a hunting world is better in its somber gloom than that same face smoothed by a bad or mechanical retoucher.”    E. L. Wilson

Either William Kurtz or Napoleon Sarony introduced retouching to American portrait photography in the late 1860s. Manipulating the negative—filling in spots, scraping patches of the emulsion to remove details, painting in background features—became one of the crafts practiced by professional portraitists. Among photographers trained in the graphic arts retouching quickly evolved into a means of making sitters approximate their fantasies about their appearance. India ink reduced thick torsos to hourglass figures, rough complexions were painted to lapidary smoothness, and peculiarities of face and figure sliced to nothingness.

The aggressiveness of these interventions raised the anxieties about the violation of likeness in photographic portraiture. As E. L. Wilson’s complaint above makes clear, the persons most offended by the doctoring of figures and faces were those who believed in physiognomy. This late-Enlightenment philosophy of human character held that a person’s moral disposition shaped his or her features, so that the good radiated beauty and the evil glowered with ugliness. Physiognomy’s tendency to locate an individual’s character within a range of set moral types and to recognize only one authentic integral form for one’s personality, made it a simple-minded way of conceiving human being. In its most foolish forms physiognomy insisted that psyche materialized as flesh. Accidents of genetics or disfiguring events had no place in the taxonomy of virtuous and vicious beings. Nor did actors.

The capacity of certain people to impersonate others, to cosmetically alter facial appearance, to mimic the expressions and gestures of another sort of character posed a fundamental challenge to the notion of fixed identity and stability of personality types. A face with the potential to be an array of faces, was more than an indicator of character; it was a symbol, an appearance than collected meanings. One portrait could not do justice to the performer’s face. One needed to view a series to know a mimetic artist. When Sarony obtruded the theatrical portrait into the gallery of American celebrity in the latter 1860s he disrupted a way of conceiving how portraits of important persons worked.

In the 1850s, Jeremiah Gurney and Matthew Brady, opened palatial photographic galleries on Broadway in New York City. There amid the portraits of politicians, generals, writers, and society grand dames. The galleries served the popular fascination with fame that had burgeoned as sectional tensions increased to the verge of Civil War. Gurney and Brady played off public anxiety about political and social disintegration by using the walls of their galleries to juxtapose incongruous persons in groupings. A commentator of 1860 observed, “The new Brady Gallery has been baptized the ‘The National Portrait Gallery.’ It deserves the name, and more. . . . In this deep tinted luxurious room, are gathered the senators and the sentimentalists, the bankers and poets, the layers and the divines of the State and of the nation, kept all in order and refined by the smiling queenliness of all manner of lovely or celebrated women. Hostile editors here stand side by side, on their best behavior, stately diplomats make themselves pleasant in the very presence of undiplomatic Garibaldi, the Emperor of the French receives the editor of the London Times with unruffled brow. If the men themselves whose physiognomies are here displayed, would but meet together for half an hour in as calm a frame of mind as their pictures wear, how vastly all the world’s disputes would be simplified, how many tears and troubles might mankind still be spared!” (New York Times Oct. 1860). The reporter did not notice a single theatrical star among the luminaries displayed at Brady’s, not even among the queenly beauties. Though the star system had lured patrons into the theaters of New York for three decades, the greatest luminaries of the stage did not possess the luster to shine with the celebrities of public life.

In April 1865 actor John Wilkes Booth completed the tragedy of Civil War by assassinating Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater while the President watched a comedy, “Our American Cousin.” The assassin’s brother, Edwin Booth, the greatest American tragedian of the latter half of the 19th century, became the focus of a public fascination. His guilt at his brother’s crime seemed in the eyes of an expanding theater-going public to fire his portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes with intensity and depths of profound abjection. Booth's became the most interesting psychology on view in country, inspiring wide curiosity about his doings, his performances, his thoughts and feelings.  Photography registered Edwin Booth’s emergence as the foremost theatrical personality of post-war period. A multitude of carte de visite images circulated making his handsome, clean-shaven and melancholic face as familiar as that of Abraham Lincoln or U. S. Grant. Both Jeremiah Gurney and Matthew Brady capitalized on his dark celebrity. Theirs was a physiognomic portrayal in which Booth was Hamlet whether in street clothes or costume. His eyes unremitting in their directness, dark, beneath unlined beetling brows. His long straight nose projects over a sensitive, unsmiling mouth. The face remains composed, yet somewhat haunted. Elements of both vulnerability and resolve combine in the muted expression. It is a face that knows no joy, no amusement, no carelessness, no congeniality. It is handsome, open, and thoughtful. The older celebrity portraitists did not deviate from the one role. [Gurney-Edwin Booth] Booth could be in costume or in street clothes and he appeared as Hamlet-Booth. Napoleon Sarony attempted to break the tyranny of the impassive visage, but could not get Booth to alter his expression when in ordinary clothes, so he attempted to subvert the mood, by interposing props such as a Meerschaum pipe or by shooting him three quarters length casually leaning against a sofa or newel post. [Sarony-EdwinBooth] Hamlet-Booth only disappeared in Sarony’s studio when Booth was dressed in costume as another of his characters—Iago, Brutus, Richleau—and portrayed full figure miming the action of a scene. Iago’s malevolence transfused Booth’s face, Richleau’s imperiousness, Brutus’ grave righteousness. Sarony’s brilliance in these images lay in his reversal of the usual understanding of the relation of physiognomy and pathognomy. Lavater and the other early theorists of physiognomy believe that ones moral disposition shaped an individual’s body and features. They opposed it to pathognomy—the fleeting expressions registered on the face and its gestures. A physiognomist believed that to perceive a person in their authentic character, one must the entire body when not moved by any particularly feeling or concern. Sarony dressed Booth in full costume, had him go through the motions of the part, and the bodily impersonation animated the expression on Booth’s face, breaking his default impassivity. Move the body: animate the face. So Sarony’s invariable effort in the studio was to get the sitter to inhabit a character as though on stage. Hence the elaborateness of props and back paintings. He was as much prompter as photographer. For the sitter the excitement of a sitting at Sarony’s lay in his willingness to envision a person in roles they had never performed. Burlesque queen Lydia Thompson shows her signature blonde mane as a dignified woman of Renaissance court. [Sarony-Lydia Thompson] Maurice Barrymore, patriarch of American drama’s first family, locks eyes in a blue steel moment as a Restoration rake. [Sarony-Maurice Barrymore]

One problem bedeviled theatrical photography’s aspiration to capture the refractions of personality a performer could encompass—beauty. Beauty had a way of causing a photographer to attend to its radiance exclusively. Jose Maria Mora of all the portraitist was most in thrall to feminine allure—so much so that the same splendid face would stare amidst a startling array of different hats, headdresses, coiffures, and collars referencing an encyclopedia of cultures and historical periods. The more mimetic talent a beautiful performer possessed, the greater the chance that a photographer could break the fascination and capture mood, emotion, passion, or thought registered in a beautiful face. A case in point: the American tragedienne Mary Anderson inspired admiration as a dramatic artist and as a statuesque woman. Mora typically bore witness to the splendor of her appearance.[Mora: Mary Anderson] Sarony showed her as a bemused buy self-possessed aristocrat in town dress, or in tragic exaltation in the costume of ancient Greece. George K. Warren of Boston showed her as a pensive medieval Queen. [Sarony: Mary Anderson; Warren: Mary Anderson]. While inspiring these expressions in a studio required imagination on the part of the performer and great sympathy on the part of the photographer, a photogenic person for the most part could get a beauty shot by simply sitting still. Hence the default manner of presenting gorgeous women and handsome men was simply to present them as being beautiful.

Certain performers—Kyrle Bellew and Francis Carlyle among men—Minnie Ashley and Lillian Russell among women—had to badger photographers to secure images that conveyed something more than attractiveness. These performers frequently circulated among the studios until they found one that gave them the scope of expression they wished: Bellew with Chickering, Russell with Sarony, Carlyle with Baker’s Art Gallery, Ashley with Falk.

Benjamin J. Falk’s treatment of beautiful faces deserves particular attention, because he had a particular capacity for visualizing performers who engaged his imagination with variety and edge. His many images of the great Shakespearean actress, Julia Marlowe, whom he managed at one juncture, constitute one of most searching explorations of an actress’s mimetic experiments from the nineteenth century. A case in point: every major dramatic actress attempted a portrayal of Shakespeare’s Rosalind from “As You Like It,” who disguised as a shepherd in the forest of Arden becomes an embodiment of masculine decisiveness and leadership while maintaining feminine grace and social intelligence. Shakespeare’s character is the nexus between traditional gender roles and attributes. The usual approach to gender bending in the 19th century was to dress the actress performing Rosalind in pants, equipping her with weapons, and having her use a gesture language with many abrupt “manly” motions. Travesty, in the wake of the burlesque boom of the 1860s, was ubiquitous in American theaters, and women playing men became something of a cliché. Indeed, a group of actresses became specialists in boy roles—Johnstone Bennett, Gertrude Bennett, Laura Denio, Louise Dillon, Lorraine Drews, Virginia Earl, Katie Emmett, and Myra Goodwin. In these cases the face remained the major weakness in their portrayals. A butch haircut turned them into pudgy faced adolescents, not dynamic young men. Julia Marlowe’s impersonation concentrated upon the expressions of her face. Strong-featured, with a cleft chin and full eye-brows, Marlowe’s face had both power and poetry. In Falk’s portrait, Marlowe-Rosalind’s eyes gaze heavenward; she resembles most that species of idealistic knight of whom Parsifal was the period’s prime exemplar. [Falk-JuliaMarlowe-Rosalind] The tousle of dark hair about her head is that of a poet. If we compare images of other famous Rosalinds of the era—the Irish actress Ada Rahan or Julia Arthur—they look girly and soft-featured. There is nothing obdurate or commanding about their faces. This is because shadows have been repressed on the face. Falk permits Marlowe’s features to give the contour of Rosalind’s face decided modeling. Her face presented an ambiguous appearance, sharing both masculine and feminine traits, and yet had an integrity and fineness to it.

Falk in general did not cultivate bust portraits the way his one-time assistant and friend Jacob Schloss did. Greatly interested in bodies, he explored the fact only in a few specific instances. Character actresses with particularly distinctive features such as Marie Bates would inspire particularly frank portraits. [Falk: Marie Bates] When certain of the professional beauties of the era gained too much poundage—Lillian Russell and Belle Archer for instance—he would diminish the number of full body images he took and concentrate upon the face. Belle Archer inspired a particularly elaborate variety of visages. Very rarely he would encounter a perfect face—one that abided by the Greek’s golden section, and he would stare long and repeatedly at it, catching opportune moments to shoot. The French dancer and courtesan Cleo DeMerode inspired a particularly austere set of studies in which the shape and configuration of the features served as the exclusive concern of the image. In the early silent motion picture era directors such as Alan Dwan became so obsessed with the mathematical proportions of the faces of starlets that he would only cast those who conformed to the golden section. [Falk: Cleo deMerode] Falk also became fascinated with pathogenic geniuses such as Nance O’Neil. The tallest leading woman of the era at six feet, O’Neil modeled her acting on that of Ristori, attempting extreme volatility of emotion and great sincerity of address. She would dare to do things on stage that even Sarah Bernhardt would balk at. All of the passion she expressed on stage she conjured in the studio. So the variety of her facial expressions from portrait to portrait is scarcely equaled by any contemporary. Falk caught her sullen and crazed, and sweet and composed. West coast photographers exposed a number of memorable images: Louis Thors of San Francisco, or Louis Mojonier of Los Angeles. [Thors-NanceO’Neil] All three camera artists succeeded in capturing the expressionist excess of her emoting. The crenulation of her brow, the trepidation of her eyes, the tousle of her hair make her in image after image the anti-type of the multitude of composed, perfectly complected beauties who appeared in cabinet cards before 1910. Her iconic expression had her face inclined downward, lips pressed together, with her eyes peering from her under her brows with smoldering directness.  

Thors may have been the most adept camera artist specializing in bust portraits. If the sitter ranked among the most beautiful men or women on the stage (Francis Carlyle or Cora Brown Potter for instance) he tended to present the person in profile. [Thors-FrancisCarlyle] This offered a new vantage for persons whose features had become over-familiar by frequent reproduction. Character performers, comedians, divas, soubrettes, and musical comedy leads he presented in ways that emphasized their humanity. Often these were shot full face from a close distance. The more outré the costume, the more Thors encouraged a friendly expression; two full face busts of musical comedy star Lulu Glaser show his method. In a white dress and sun bonnet—normal dress—Glaser’s eyes with their intelligent candor front the onlooker. In gaudy stripes and floppy hat of a musical comedy singer, Thor has Glaser convey approachability with a winsome smile and merry eyes. [Thors-Lulu Glaser]

If Thors made stage people approachable and sought to evoke affection, New York portraitist Jacob Schloss made the them characterful and sought to evoke respect. Schloss entered into business in 1877. Like Henry Vander Weyde in London, Schloss distinguished himself from the ranks of professional portraitists by early adopting electrical illumination in his studio. Though he shot full figure images, these were pictorially less effective than his half-lengths and bust portraits. His employment of several arc-lights placed about the studio enabled Schloss to experiment with the play of shadow across the face, particularly side illumination. Most portrait photography during the cabinet era was lit by skylight, and though artful photographers could refract and redirect light with mirrors and baffles, the light source tended to be located on the scalp side of the head. Schloss became in the 1880s the master of the feminine head shot. His method for a sitting derived from Sarony. He devoted extensive time to each performer’s shoot, engaged the sitter in conversation, only began making exposures after a rapport had been established. He eschewed painted backgrounds, letting bare walls, patterned cloths, or a tonal background frame the head. As some juncture during the sitting the subject conveyed what she most wished the world to see in her, whether it was dignity, wit, power, mischievousness, allure, curiosity, calculation, bemusement, good-heartedness, or sorrow. For psychological insight no other American theatrical photographer did as much as Schloss. The greatest of Schloss’s images made costume seem accidental. He allowed the features of the face to emerge from shade [Schloss: Virginia Harned]. In the 1890s he embraced the platinum papers because of their extraordinary gradation of gray tones and made images that repressed tonal contrast. [Schloss Catherine Gray] Shadows were subtle. When he desired a bolder play of light and dark he reverted to carbon prints. The supreme testament to Schloss’s abilities lay in his multitude of expressive bust portraits, a trove unequalled by any of the major photographers except Falk, Sarony, and Thors. Few present smiling girls, the stock-in-trade of Schloss’s rivals William Morrison and Arthur Glines. Rather one discovers an engagingly candid group of young women each addressing the onlooker in an surprisingly unrhetorical ways, given the fact that they are actresses. Schloss created his portraits during that period when the extreme close-up collapsed the distance between the viewer and the face of the performer. Henry Vander Weyde in London took the first face shots that filled the pictorial field during the 1890s. Schloss portrayed his sitters from an intimate distance, a perspective that revealed the whole configuration of head and neck, and part of the shoulders. Because of the way black and white photography registered cosmetics—amplifying their character as powder or paste—Schloss and most other of the theatrical portraitists made sure that the sitter had minimal cosmetic supplementation to the features. Hence the way the performer’s made-up face appeared under stage light was never reproduced in a a photograph. This proved disconcerting to older performers and performers going for their first sitting. But the hard and fast rule in the studio was that only a light dusting of powder was permitted to take the shine of one’s nose and brow. Lips were minimally rouged. When orthochromatic film became available at the end of the century, even this modest treatment of lips was halted because red appeared black in ortho prints. In sum, Schloss’s portraits showed women who in their performing life were “painted” to the nines in ways that minimized the artifice of facial appearance. Schloss had several habits in the representations of his face the endured over twenty years of sittings. However deep the visual field, the sitter’s eyes located the focal plane of the image. Vertically, he placed the eyes 2/3rds of the way up the visual field. Other photographers had other preferences. Antonio Moreno set the sitter’s eyes 3/4ths of the way up the visual field. Jose Maria Mora varied the placement and sometimes would set them low for effect—3/8ths up the print. Falk, like Schloss, keyed the eyes at about 2/3rd height, although with child portraits might set them midway. Every photographers worked the various angles and attitudes of head and shoulders, since the demand by editors and the public for a multiplicity of views invited experiment in set ups to achieve something sufficiently distinct to catch someone’s eye.

While Sarony and Mora had sufficient command to order the sitter, no matter how celebrated, to make the pose of his choosing, Schloss, and other of the talented photographers of the second tier, at some juncture catered to the whims of the sitter. A diva possessed decided opinions about which side of the her have showed better. Mrs Cora Brown Potter had a decided preference for profile shots. The British dramatic actress Ellen Terry preferred to be depicted head on, or bust shots angled to the right. Sarah Bernhardt had so great a penchant for tilting her head that photographers had to instruct her to be perpendicular. Lotta Faust liked to tilt her head forward, so the brow was closest the lens. Lotta Crabtree preferred the cameraman to shot the left side of her face. Most performers favored one or two photographers.

Lotta Crabtree was unique in inviting many cameramen to think up studio situations that challenged her. Crabtree had a singularly peculiar formative experience. Child of a bookseller who ventured to California infected by Gold fever, her homelife imbued her with learning and a love of languages. The Crabtree family settled in Grass Valley, where their neighbor Lola Montez, the famous dancer, royal courtesan, and actress, tutored the girl singing and dancing from ages six to nine. Lotta performed Irish jigs in the camp saloons. After the family’s move to San Francisco in 1856 her Montez-burnished skill as songstress found her a place on the stage. She developed a deft hand at banjo playing, delighted in the rough humor of largely male audiences in that libertine city, and as a girl learned to wriggle seductively to the astonishment of onlookers. Though beautiful and schooled in being alluring, she was impatient with simply being a pretty thing, and strove to impersonate all sorts of feminine types while still a teenager. The San Franciscan photographer Thomas Houseworth, a man fascinated by Crabtree, captured the poles of her portrayal, showing her as the beautiful ingénue in an oval portrait, and a rough scullery maid in a character shot for “Little Nell.”  Character study as “Little Nell”] Crabtree’s mother, Mary Ann, shaped her career, managing her money and securing costumes and bookings. Off-stage Crabtree developed a number of bohemian habits—dressing in men’s trousers and smoking thin black cigars. The latter may have been a legacy of her contact with Montez, along with political radicalism. In 1863 Mary Ann secured a booking for Lotta to play the title role of “Little Nell and the Marchioness” in New York. Her spirited rollicking portrayal galvanized the public and Crabtree quickly became a theatrical sensation. Crabtree’s storied career as America’s favorite actress of the 1870s and ‘80s fascinates for its unexpected elements. She rarely appeared in roles as a conventional romantic lead. She favored girl roles, or mischievous old ladies, or trouser roles, or comic turns. While she could elicit tears as little Nell, she preferred to provoke laughter, and she was fearless in her pursuit of roles, gestures, voices, and make up that would set the audience roaring. She took her adventurousness from the stage to the studio. Until Lon Cheney appeared in the silent motion picture era, no performer in the United States explored the limits of impersonation as selflessly as Lotta. [Kuebler: Lotta Crabtree-Cranks] Replace her body with a dummy’s? As long as it promised fun, Crabtree was game. Later in her career, she sought stage vehicles that permitted her to alter personae multiple times during the course of an evening. “The Little Detective” enabled her to be an aged spinster, a girl, and a flash bachelor. In the 1880s, when she was in her thirties and forties, she delighted in reverting to her first role, that of a rollicking teenage girl. [Sarony-LottaCrabtree-Musette] Photographs well convey Crabtree’s experiments in mimesis. Yet one dimension of her stagecraft did not convey to her portraits or tableaux. On stage her mouth was mobile—puckeringing, laughing, grimacing, singing. In the studio she reverted to a default smile. Sarony alone of her portrayers noticed the deanimation of her mouth, so gave her apples to chew or water glasses to sip. But other photographers were so captivated by the liveliness of her eyes and head tilting that they did not notice that Crabtree’s mouth had stilled. A generation later, when Mary Pickford revived Lotta Crabtree’s modus operandi as a performer, still photographers because their images were viewed in tension with the moving pictures of Pickford, made certain that Mary’s mobile mouth appeared in all its antic glory.

1 Edward Livingston Wilson, “Retouching and ‘doctoring’ the Negative,” Wilson’s Quarter Century in Photography (New York: Edward L. Wilson, 1887) , 438.

2 In 1855 Independence Hall in Philadelphia purchased a large portion of painter Charles Wilson Peale’s estate, displaying his busts of the nation’s founders in the Assembly Room. Publishers released lavishly illustrated volumes by Rufus Griswold and Elizabeth Ellet of the ‘Republican Court, Martha Washington’s national salon wherein all society met on amicable terms. Amid the growing national disharmony, the gathering of images of the storied men and women who created the nation suggested that division might somehow be overcome by holding to the universal regard for the founders and their ideals.