The Portrait and the Book: Illustration and Literary Culture in Early America

The Portrait and the Book: Illustration and Literary Culture in Early America

by Megan Walsh


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In the nineteenth century, new image-making methods like steel engraving and lithography caused a surge in the publication of illustrated books in the United States. Yet even before the widespread use of these technologies, Americans had already established the illustrated book format as central to the nation’s literary culture. In The Portrait and the Book, Megan Walsh argues that colonial-era author portraits, such as Benjamin Franklin’s and Phillis Wheatley’s frontispieces; political portraits that circulated during the debates over the Constitution, such as those of the Founders by Charles Willson Peale; and portraits of beloved fictional characters in the 1790s, such as those of Samuel Richardson’s heroine Pamela, shaped readers’ conceptions of American literature.

Illustrations played a key role in American literary culture despite the fact there was little demand for books by American writers. Indeed, most of the illustrated books bought, sold, and shared by Americans were either imported British works or reprinted versions of those imported editions. As a result, in addition to embellishing books, illustrations provided readers with crucial information about the country’s status as a former colony.

Through an examination of readers’ portrait-collecting habits, writers’ employment of ekphrasis, printers’ efforts to secure American-made illustrations for periodicals, and engravers’ reproductions of British book illustrations, Walsh uncovers in late eighteenth-century America a dynamic but forgotten visual culture that was inextricably tied to the printing industry and to the early US literary imagination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609385026
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 05/15/2017
Series: Impressions Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 278
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

MEGAN WALSH is associate professor of English at St. Bonaventure University. She lives in Olean, New York.

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The Portrait and the Book

Illustration & Literary Culture in Early America

By Megan Walsh

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2017 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-502-6


Benjamin Franklin's Portraits and Colonial Printing

IT IS DIFFICULT TO think of a piece of eighteenth-century American writing that has been published with an author frontispiece portrait more often than Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. One of the first to suggest the format, enterprising Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey, wrote to Franklin in August 1786 on behalf of the "proprietors of the Columbian Magazine" who wished "to introduce in the first number of that work (if not displeasing to you) an account of your life, with a likeness of you." Franklin was not keen on the plan. He refused to send either his narrative or his portrait for publication in the magazine, preferring instead to share his manuscript directly with his readers either in letters or as gifts bestowed in person. It was not until after his death that the first printed edition appeared. Mémoires de la Vie Privée de Benjamin Franklin, a liberally translated and edited version of Part I of the Autobiography, was published in 1791. It was then retranslated back into English two years later. This version of the text became the source for the first U.S. editions to appear with illustrations. By the turn of the nineteenth century, a substantial portion of Franklin's narrative was in print and it was accompanied in a number of editions by engraved renderings of several of the portraits that artists had made of Franklin during his lifetime.

A bibliographic study of the illustrated book in America might begin a history of Franklin's frontispiece author portraits with these immensely popular 1790s editions. Such an approach would fail, however, to fully appreciate how significant the frontispiece author portrait was for writers and readers in colonial America as a conveyor of information about a book's source, its popularity, and its salability. The illustrated book existed as an imported or reprinted luxury good, a product that was improbable for a colonial-born person to write, no matter how famous that person had become on the world stage. As a visual paratext that announced its own decidedly cosmopolitan origin within the space of the colonial book market, the author portrait frontispiece caused colonial Americans to begin to think of books with these images as unique objects in which pictures were not supplemental, but integral. A story of early eighteenth-century printing, I argue, the Autobiography includes Franklin's own conceptualization of illustrated books as exceptional objects and, more specifically, as physical reminders of the robust printing economies in Europe. Franklin's narrative is a particularly valuable tool for analyzing the colonial apprehension of the illustrated book because, as Peter Stallybrass has put it, "in contrast to the tradition that, from Plato to Derrida, took writing as its model, Franklin analyzed himself primarily in terms of printing." As a printer, Franklin was as familiar with the frontispiece author portrait as anyone born in colonial America could have been. The sections of this chapter explain how the Autobiography took part in the colonial imagining of the illustrated book by inviting readers to think of Franklin's many widely circulating portraits alongside the text. I examine Franklin's narrative through his writing about portraiture to friends and family and through a number of examples of these likenesses in order to frame the narrative's references to them in light of eighteenth-century frontispiece author portrait conventions.

Franklin's Frontispiece Author Portrait and the Limits of Authorial Control

Although they drew from the conventions of the painted portrait, frontispieces encouraged viewers not simply to gaze at them, but also to develop a feeling of possession over the books in which they appeared. Placed at the very front of the book between the cover or wrapper and the title page, a frontispiece was in close proximity to the spaces where readers generally inscribed their names and dates to mark their ownership of books. Frontispiece author portraits invited readers to contemplate authorial identity and, perhaps, reminded them of the practice of giving a portrait miniature to a loved one, and even to imagine a connection between author and reader. As Janine Barchas has argued, "every frontispiece portrait offered a miniature surrogate of the book's absent author, a small private fetish that the book buyer could take home along with the text." By the end of his lifetime, Benjamin Franklin had become the subject of a huge number of painted portraits by famed artists Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle, Mason Chamberlin, Joseph Siffred Duplessis, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, David Martin, Charles Willson Peale, Charles Philippe Amédée Van Loo, Benjamin West, and Benjamin Wilson, a vast archive of artistic representations consigned to the hands of descendants, friends, institutions, and complete strangers. Images of Franklin appeared on media as diverse as canvas, paper, porcelain, medallions, jewelry, textiles, and snuffboxes. With the possible exception of George Washington, Franklin rose as the most visually represented member of the early U.S. pantheon over the course of the nineteenth century and continues in that position today. Franklin not only commissioned portraits, but he also ordered copies of them, checked in with artists about paint quality, and demanded the correction of images that did not meet his standards. Franklin also delighted in sharing the paintings, engravings, and hand-drawn sketches of his face, often enclosing them with letters describing them. He managed his visual representations with characteristic exertion and attention to detail, sending countless copies to people throughout Europe and North America. Before illustrated copies of the Autobiography were published, Franklin's select readership of family, friends, and acquaintances brought visual archives to the narrative, drawing on the wide world of Franklin portraits they had encountered in order to inform how they saw the parts of the text that Franklin sent them.

The earliest known portrait of Franklin, most likely painted by self-taught artist Robert Feke around 1746, was created just before he retired from his print shop in Philadelphia, leaving the daily operations of the business to his partner David Hall. Franklin looks every inch the colonial businessperson in this portrait. His dark clothing, his traditional hand placements, and the minimalistic background all contribute to give him an air that is almost as characteristic of a New England minister as it is of a wealthy merchant. Some scholars have seen this portrait as evidence of Franklin's desire to show restraint because of his humble background. Wayne Craven argues, for example, "Franklin's plainness is not accidental: both the portrait painter and his subject would have agreed that this was the appropriate way to represent a member of colonial mercantile society who was successful, but not actually wealthy." Franklin was not as rich as some colonists, but he had certainly come a ways financially from where he began and was by this time one of Philadelphia's leading citizens. The Feke portrait suggests that Franklin was keen to illustrate that success in the same medium as his more affluent American contemporaries. In colonial America, those who could afford to have their portraits painted did so because a portrait signaled economic status and cosmopolitanism. As a reader of the Spectator, Franklin may have seen a 1712 letter in it linking specific genres in painting to national identities: "Italy may have the Preference of all other Nations for History Painting; Holland for Drolls, and a neat finished manner of working; France, for Gay, Jaunty, Fluttering Pictures; and England for Portraits ... No Nation in the World delights so much in having their own, or Friends' or Relations' Pictures ... Face-Painting is nowhere in the world so well performed as in England." A colonial subject who had already spent close to a year in London learning the printing trade, Franklin likely already had ambitions to go back to Britain, but with far more money and a far better reputation. For Franklin, commissioning this austere early portrait was not only a move that cemented his status in colonial America; it was also an investment in a specifically British cultural tradition.

As in England, most paintings done in America before 1800 were portraits, and those portraits were privately owned objects that conveyed important information about familial, social, and economic affiliation to their viewers. Since the 1990s, historians and art historians have begun to recognize how highly specific these images were to the contexts in which they were produced. Rather than focusing on traditional aspects of composition like coloring and gesture, Timothy Breen explains that American painters "wove the materials and experiences of everyday life onto a distinctly new set of visual symbols." Unlike post-Revolutionary American or European portrait painting, colonial American portraiture, argues Margaretta Lovell, reveals "the act of creation (of career and artistic identity as well as of individual object) and the acts of consumption within communities, specifically within the community of the extended patriarchal family." Portraits captured the networks of relation between early America's wealthiest individuals through the repeated portrayal of objects (like dresses, wigs, and even squirrels), as well as through practices of patronage, gift-exchange, and inheritance, which ensured the circulation of these images through the collections of the colonies' leading set. According to Lovell, "art in pre-Revolutionary America circulated within the family, in private. No public exhibitions, sales galleries, even studio visitations expanded its audience and its impact" beyond that intimate realm. And, unlike other kinds of inheritable commodities, portraits could not easily be sold for ready cash until the nineteenth century. Instead, their value was as markers of wealth and status within a relatively closed system.

For Franklin, however, portraits increasingly served a somewhat more public function. His portrait depictions changed considerably once he became known internationally for his experiments with electricity. The most frequently reproduced of the paintings that depict Franklin as scientist and thinker is English portrait painter and founding member of the Royal Academy Mason Chamberlin's 1762 portrait (fig. 3). Chamberlin's design visually capitalized on Franklin's fame as the inventor of lightning rods and his continued success with advances in electricity. In the portrait, Franklin wears a brown-violet suit, holds a pen and paper, and looks off to the distance. Over his right shoulder is the lightning rod with chimes that he designed for his home, and over his left shoulder is an open window showing lightning striking the rods on several buildings. A house and a church, both without rods, are depicted aflame as a result of the electrical storm. Paintings like the Chamberlin portrait, as Brandon Brame Fortune and Deborah Warner have argued, served as "material evidence of the value of correspondence and exchange within the growing transatlantic scientific community." Commissioned originally by Franklin's friend Colonel Philip Ludwell III, a Williamsburg, Virginia, planter and politician who traveled frequently to London, where he befriended Franklin, the portrait pleased Franklin more than any other before it. In 1763 Franklin and his son William placed an order with the Irish-born London engraver Edward Fisher to produce one hundred mezzotint copies of the Chamberlin portrait so that both father and son could give the copies as gifts. Franklin personally sent at least eighteen engravings to friends, including one to Thomas-François Dalibard, the French scientist who had conducted experiments with electricity the same year that Franklin had. In his accompanying letter, Franklin explained that the mezzotint image would serve as his substitute, writing, "As I cannot soon again enjoy the Happiness of being personally in your Company, permit my Shadow to pay my Respects to you." These mezzotints were welcomed by Franklin's correspondents. In November 1770, Philadelphia botanist John Bartram wrote to Franklin, describing him as a member of an elite fraternal order of scientific thinkers: "Now I am furnished with four of our worthies Lineus, Franklin Edwards and Collinson (but I want Dr. Fothergill,) to adorn my new stove and lodging room," Bartram wrote, "alltho I am no picture Enthusiast. Yet I love to looke at thee representation of men of inocency integrity ingenuity and Humanity."

Franklin wrote increasingly about the quality of portraits he had commissioned for his friends and family, and he critiqued artists when the paintings were not to his satisfaction. When he wrote, for example, to Thomas Bond, Franklin remarked, "When I was last at your House I observed that the Paint of the Picture you had was all cracked. I complain'd of it to the Painter. He acknowledged that in that Picture, and three others, he had made Trial of a new Vernish, which had been attended with that mischievous Effect; and offer'd to make Amends, if I would sit to him again, by drawing a new Picture gratis." Though Franklin was dissatisfied with the quality of some pictures, he was also concerned about the ways that some reproductions of high-quality portraits depicted him. Engravings of the Chamberlin portrait, for example, became so popular and the painting so widely known, that its reproductions provided Franklin with amusement, and in some cases, irritation. Franklin took an especially keen interest in the Chamberlin portrait when it was adapted for a frontispiece engraving for a 1773 French edition of Franklin's Observations on Electricity. In a letter to his wife, Franklin noted how the engraver had altered a number of qualities of the original representation. He wrote, "tho' a Copy of that per Chamberlain," the frontispiece "Print of your Old Husband" "has got so French a Countenance, that you would take him for one of that lively Nation." Whereas the Feke portrait positioned Franklin within a tradition of British colonial portraiture, Franklin realized that reproductions of his image like the copperplate engraving of the Chamberlin portrait would align him with other national cultures as well. If Franklin wanted to control his own reputation, he would have to control his image, its reproductions, and its relation to his text.

As Franklin's popularity grew and he became an international statesman, the visual representations of him changed to reflect his new persona. Franklin was especially interested in two portraits, both of which depicted him as an American rustic abroad: a terra cotta bas-relief medallion made in Paris by Italian artist and potter Giovanni Battista (Jean Baptiste) Nini and an engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. Both images were completed in 1777, one year after Franklin arrived in Paris as U.S. ambassador, and both were widely reproduced until the end of the century (fig. 4). Nini based his design on a drawing of Franklin by the son of English banker Thomas Walpole, who was then living in Paris, and, it is likely, on a 1766 portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Scottish painter Allan Ramsay. In the relief, Franklin appears in profile surrounded by text that reads, "B. FRANKLIN / AMERICAIN." Saint-Aubin modeled his depiction on a drawing by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, which was advertised for sale on June 16, 1777, in the Journal de Paris. More pictorially elaborate than the Nini image, the Saint-Aubin print shows Franklin with spectacles, homespun garb, stringy shoulder-length hair, and a marten fur cap. American painter John Trumbull referred to it simply as "Head of Dr. Franklin — a fur cap." The popularity of this portrayal of Franklin cannot be underestimated. Other printers used it in their own advertisements. Josiah Wedgwood's ceramics company turned it into a transfer print to decorate lead-glazed earthen dinnerware. It even appeared on a French-made snuffbox, which also depicted Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as in an English-made textile print, in which Franklin is pictured holding a scroll and walking with the figure of Liberty. (George Washington also features prominently in the fabric design. He can be found just below Franklin, riding a chariot pulled by two panthers.)


Excerpted from The Portrait and the Book by Megan Walsh. Copyright © 2017 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Benjamin Franklin's Portraits and Colonial Printing 25

Chapter 2 Phillis Wheatley and the Durability of the Author Portrait 63

Chapter 3 Nationalist Portraiture, Magazines, and Political Books 103

Chapter 4 Picturing the Seduction Heroine in the United States 141

Chapter 5 Gothic Portraiture in Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland and Ormond 171

Notes 203

Bibliography 233

Index 253

What People are Saying About This

Patricia Crain

“In this elegantly conceived book, Megan Walsh argues that illustration constitutes a crucial paratext in the literature of the early republic, influencing early American writing as much, and sometimes more, by its absence than by its presence. The Portrait and the Book shows how images undergird American literature in surprising and surprisingly early ways, before lithography, daguerreotypes, and photography.”

Eric Slauter

“Countering a long-held assumption that the early national period was one of graphic poverty, a low point from which to measure the dramatic rise of illustrated books in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Walsh taps a diverse archive of verbal and visual materials in order to generate a new perspective on the imaginations of early Americans.”

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