Photo Detective: Crayon Portrait

Photo Detective: Crayon Portrait

William Poe owns a number of identified pictures of his ancestors. He's even posted an illustrated family tree online. Yet, this double portrait remains a mystery. Poe believes the photo depicts John Poe (1785 to 1859) and Sarah Threet (1794 to 1861), but he'd like to confirm that identification. It's...

William Poe owns a number of identified pictures of his ancestors. He’s even posted an illustrated family tree online. Yet, this double portrait remains a mystery. Poe believes the photo depicts John Poe (1785 to 1859) and Sarah Threet (1794 to 1861), but he’d like to confirm that identification.

It’s a confusing portrait because the couple’s life dates and the clothing clues don’t add up. Here’s why:

  • The image is a crayon portrait. To create such a picture, a photographer printed a light image and then artistically enhanced it using charcoal, paint and crayon. Sometimes the photographer would update the original image or remove flaws. Crayon portraits were popular from the 1860s to 1900.

  • Given John Poe’s and Sarah Threet’s life dates, this crayon portrait would have to be a copy of a daguerreotype. (The first photographs, daguerreotypes date from 1840 to about 1860.) If that’s the case, then the photographer updated the woman’s clothing and hairstyle to reflect current fashion. Dresses with high, puffed sleeves at the shoulder seam, a small collar and a pleated bodice (as seen here) date from the early 1890s, not the 1840s or 1850s. In the 1840s, sleeves were long and tight on the upper arms. In the 1850s, women wore wide lace collars and sleeves with fullness on the lower arm, not the upper arm. The woman in this portrait wears her hair parted in the middle and pulled back. Women typically kept their hair over their ears during the 1850s.

  • The man’s clothing doesn’t help date the picture because the details aren’t distinctive enough to indicate a particular decade. Although young men usually didn’t sport beards in the 1890s, older men sometimes did.

The photographic evidence suggests that this portrait was created in the 1890s. If the identification is correct, then the photographer copied an older photograph and substantially altered the appearance of the woman’s dress to reflect 1890s styles.

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