Interior with Portraits, by Thomas Le Clear, ca. 1865, oil, 25 7/8 x 40 1/2. Collection the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
A interesting exhibition just closed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is moving to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 28-May 23, 2010). The show is called American Stories. Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915, and it includes major works by Winslow Homer, John Singleton Copley, George Caleb Bingham, William Merritt Chase, and dozens of other artists who commented on political, social, economic, and artistic issues in America during the time period.
One particularly amusing and relevant painting is a studio scene by Thomas Le Clear in which he expresses his opinions about the impact of the new technology of photography on fine art. At first glance it appears that the painting reveals two children posing for a portrait photograph in an artist's studio. The room is filled with sculptures, paintings, sketchbooks, an easel, and a mahl stick and yet a photographer is preparing to take a photograph with the subjects posed against an artificial backdrop. As art historian Margaret C. Conrads points out in the catalog for the exhibition, "at a time when photography was considered the more truthful medium and was a strong competitor of painting for portrait commissions, Le Clear unmasked the illusion, even deception, in the mechanics of both media, as well as the complicity of painters and photographers in their creation."
It turns out that neither of the two children posing for a photograph were alive at the time the painting was created (the young girl, Parnell Sidway, was 13 when she died in 1849; and her brother, James, was killed in a fire in 1865 when he was 25), and the setup in the studio is completely inaccurate. Le Clear seems to be saying that while photographer may be able to capture the truth of one moment in time, artists have the power to present a truth about life that transcends the limitations of time and random occurrences. This distinction would have been extremely important to artists in the 1860's when photographers were suggesting that their accounts of the Civil War were more significant that the drawings and paintings artists created on the battlefields. And when the market for painting collapsed during the recession that followed the war, artists like Le Clear felt that their very livelihood was at stake.
Questions about photography's impact on painting are still being raised today. There are those who feel artists must draw and paint from life in order to perfect their skills of perception, but there is a significantly greater number of painters who use photographs as supplementary resources or as primary references. The relevant issues are just as important today as they were for Thomas Le Clear in 1865.