A very proper family portrait

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Each member of Joseph Moore's family, dressed in Sunday best, looks us straight in the eye.

Almost defiantly, they appraise us. And they also outface the passage of time as if to say, "This is unmistakably the way we were in 1839, and we paid good money to the itinerant artist Erastus Salisbury Field to fix us permanently on canvas with crisp formality, decorum, and propriety. And we are happy he noted that we live in a symmetrical world of uncompromising balance, and have under our firmly placed feet a rich carpet."

When Field (1805-1900) portrayed the Moore family, the days of demand for such traditional painted icons of family pride - groups like this were known as "conversation pieces" - were numbered. Photography, in the form of the daguerreotype, just invented, quickly made the American folk portrait, of which this is a fine example, outmoded. Untrained artists like Field (although he, exceptionally, may have served a short apprenticeship with an academic painter in New York City) had their livelihood threatened. Field himself tried to solve the problem by making daguerreotypes. He offered both paintings and photographs, or a combination of the two, to his clientele.

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American folk portraits have for us today a rather primitive charm. A more sophisticated artist than Field would have better rendered the perspective of the carpet, and would have made the domestic setting asymmetrical. Also, perhaps, his sitters would not have all faced so rigidly to the front.

And yet the awkward formalities of this kind of conversation piece do convey a vivid and true sense of period.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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