Portraits of family bliss in 19th century New York

We’re in the season of holiday cards, particularly family photo cards. You might have a pile of them right now—family members, especially kids, appearing joyful in the warm embrace of domestic life.

Well-heeled New York families in the 19th century couldn’t curate their Instagram account to find the right picture representing family tranquility. And while photography studios abounded in the city after the Civil War, photo portraits were posed and formal.

So how did families convey their domestic and material comforts? By commissioning a painted portrait, as the family of Robert Gordon did above, in the parlor of his home at 7 West 33rd Street in 1866.

“The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room,” was painted by Seymour Joseph Guy. Guy, a British painter, went on to do many more family portraits, called “conversation pieces” because of the narrative elements that help tell the story of the family.

In this case, Mrs. Gordon is clearly the center of domestic life in the household, sending her children off to school after breakfast (likely made by a cook) in a sumptuous Renaissance Revival dining room.

In the second portrait, the narrative elements hint at the larger world outside the domestic sphere. “Christmas-Time, the Blodgett Family,” painted by Eastman Johnson in 1864, shows a wealthy family’s restrained Christmas decor (see the wreath and tree in the background) in the parlor of their home at 27 West 25th Street.

“Depicted during the Civil War, at a time of urban upheaval, the serene interior decorated for Christmas, embodies ‘the best sentiment of home,’ as a critic observed in 1865,” states the description of the painting at Metmuseum.org, the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Only the toy of a caricatured black male dancer held by the young boy hints at pressing issues of racial strife and emancipation.”

The third painting takes us to the New York of 1880, where a wife and mother posed with her four lovely children in a luxurious dressing gown.

The woman in the portrait is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall; the stunning portrait is by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani. I’m not sure where the Hall family home was, but the parlor decor reflects the fashionable Asian-inspired aesthetic of the era.

Eastman Johnson was also the artist behind the fourth family portrait, depicting three generations of the Hatch family in their home at 49 Park Avenue in 1870-1871. Alfrederick Smith Hatch was a Wall Street broker in the firm of Fisk and Hatch, which helped finance railroads. (He’s the man seated on the right at a desk.)

Considering that Hatch is posing not only with his immediate family but with his father and his mother-in-law, this family portrait gives us a man who wasn’t just abundant in terms of his finances, but also abundant in family members. (I count 11 kids in that parlor!)

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4 Responses to “Portraits of family bliss in 19th century New York”

  1. Bill Wolfe Says:

    The real stars of the portrait of the Robert Gordon family are those luminous golden picture frames on the right wall. What better way to indicate the family’s prosperity?

  2. VirginiaB Says:

    Wonderful paintings, full of fascinating detail. Thanks for researching and sharing. But I do wonder at the second painting from 1864. The Met Museum site says Mr Blodgett was a Union supporter but evidently, I must note, not enough to serve in the battle. He was draft age, it appears, but perhaps, like other well-to-do New Yorkers, he bought himself a substitute, an immigrant so poor he felt forced to put his own life on the line to support his family.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That could certainly be the case; the $300 spent on a substitute would be nothing to a man of Blodgett’s wealth. $300 was about what a working man made in a year at the time.

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