Sunday, September 2, 2012

Can you help us solve a family mystery?

This is a portrait of a family member from our father's side of our family.  Our dad remembers it hanging on the wall of his parents' living room, and thinks it first appeared there when he was about high-school age.  From what he always understood, it was someone on his father's side of the family, and he assumed it was his father's mother - in other words, our great-grandmother - but he's not positive, and I'm not yet convinced.  Whoever it is, the face, and particularly the eyes, are quite striking and beautifully executed.  We're hoping a more accurate and specific dating might help us narrow down the identity possibilities, and that's where you come in!

mystery family portrait painted on tin
The mystery family portrait, painted on a sheet of metal.

Today, for the first time, I unpicked the nails from the back of the frame, hoping to discover a name scribbled on the reverse, or even a date written in the margins underneath the frame.  Alas, I didn't discover anything like that, but what I did discover was that this portrait is actually painted on a thin sheet of metal.  I assume it is tin.  You can see how the acid from the paint has begun to eat through the metal on the back.

mystery family portrait painted on tin back
The eerie imprint of the portrait on the reverse.

I don't know a great deal about nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century fashion, and I don't know anything about portraiture or painting from the turn of the century, either. Based on the little I do know about fashion, hairstyles, and accessories, it looks like this portrait could have been done any time between about 1880 and 1920. We're hoping some of you with deeper knowledge about the nuances of these decades in fashion and art could help us narrow that down a bit more.  When was painting on sheets of tin most popular?  What decade does this hairstyle or these earrings or this type of collar suggest to you?  Any insight at all in helping us solve this mystery would be most appreciated!


Jenni said...

I'm not an expert, but I have been doing a bit of research on the early 1880's recently for a project I am working on. Because of the style of hair, jewelry, and collar, my guess is early to mid 1880's. Later than that, and you get puffy hair, earlier than that, and the hair hangs down in a long loop, or is elaborately braided. This is just my guess though, and I might be wrong. Also, something to keep in mind, if your ancestors were working class, or of a religious bent, they might have not participated in the most up to date fashion. Meaning, this portrait very well could be early 1900, and the person being painted just wasn't in fashion. But...the jewelry makes me think that wasn't the case. Lovely portrait anyway, even if I'm wrong. Just my two cents. I hope you solve the mystery.

Sarah Rachelle said...

I agree, the eyes are very lovely and overall the portrait is beautiful!

My first thought, based on the hair and the neckline, was the 1880s as well.

It could be a case for the Antiques Roadshow! :-)

Cassidy said...

~1875-1883 seems most plausible to me. Earlier than that and the hair would be dressed low on the back of the head and the neckline would probably be rounder, with a white collar laying on top of the dress. Later, and she'd have a high collar. I'd tend towards the earlier end of the range, as curly bangs came into fashion in the second half of it (and collars were creeping higher from about 1880). 1870s hair could be pretty elaborate, but based on paintings like this it's plausible that her hairstyle could be minimally visible from the front. Coral jewelry was also very popular in the middle of the century.

Unfortunately I know nothing about tin paintings.

Kelly said...

I'm coming to this discussion -- and your wonderful blog -- rather late, but after consulting with my husband, we think that the painting of your ancestor may have started "life" as a tin-type photograph that was then painted over. This treatment of photographs wasn't so uncommon in the late 19th C. ( and I even have a group photo of some of my ancestors from 1884 that was almost fully painted over sometime soon after.

While I've done a lot of costuming in the past, I'm fairly new to colonial clothing and have learned so much already from your posts. Thanks so much!


Rebecca said...

All of these comments have been so, so helpful! I'm intrigued by the concensus between all four of you ladies, with each of you pointing to the 1880s. That would make this our great-great-grandmother, and the date actually makes perfect sense because she died in 1890 at the age of 40, and this certainly looks like a woman between the ages of 25 and 40.

I'm fascinated, Kelly, by your insight about this beginning life as a tintype photograph. I hadn't even thought of that, but it seems probable, now that I think about it, because of the extraordinary detailing in the hair and around the eyes. The chemicals from the photo would also account for the rusting on the back of tin. Very, very interesting indeed, and thank you all SO much for your input! We'll definitely keep you updated as we continue researching!

And Sarah, that's funny, because the first thing I said when I pulled this picture out of the frame and discovered it was metal was, "YES! Finally an excuse to go on Antiques Roadshow!"