Painted Tintype Portraits

Thursday, Jun 27 – Aug 11, 2019

756 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60642

Curated by Jan Petry

Painted tintype portraits offer a glimpse back in time.

Portraits have always served to demarcate social boundaries. Prior to the 19th century, portraits represented wealth and power, as they were commissioned by the rich and the ruling classes. Then, in the early 19th century, itinerant folk artists documented the growth of the rural middle class. The works they produced depicted aspiration and newfound respectability, rather than the images of staid authority favored by traditional academic portraits.

The invention of photography further extended the accessibility of formal portraiture to minorities, immigrants and the lower classes, providing them with a means to confirm their place in an expanding America. Cheap and easy to produce, tintypes, direct positive prints from a coated iron plate, had no negative, so each tintype was one of a kind. Hand painting further transformed one into an original, unique work of art. Painted tintypes made it possible for any American, regardless of class and race, to own a portrait to be hung on a parlor wall. The painted tintype was truly a portrait for the masses.

Painted tintype photographs were framed in the manner of traditional paintings, placing the work on the walls of rural households. The marked decline of American folk art portraits in the latter half of the 19th century was largely the result of the rising popularity of inexpensive painted photographs. But while folk painters were all but completely vanquished in the economic struggle against photography, the aesthetic and cultural traditions of folk art lived on in the art form that replaced it: the painted tintype. American folk portraiture survived for several decades in this new medium of American folk photography.

Painted full-plate tintypes (6½ x 8½ inches) had become a popular means of documentation towards the close of the Civil War. Coloring compensated for the tintypes’ natural lackluster tone. After the war, photographic entrepreneurs, looking to continuing their prolific wartime business, offered painted tintypes to a public now familiar with the images.

Because the lacquered iron support (no tin is used) was resilient and did not need drying, a tintype could be produced within a few minutes after the picture had been taken. Painted portrait tintypes were usually done in oils, often in sharp contrast to the unforgiving metal surface. To tint more delicate features, transparent watercolors were often used, allowing the photographic details to show through. Painted embellishments emphasized jewelry, clothing and furniture details or added completely new elements, like the army tents in the Civil War portrait here.

Painted tintypes played a significant role in American culture for a period of about four decades, continuing the tradition of vernacular portraiture. However, the introduction in 1888 of the Kodak camera with flexible roll film allowed anyone to be a photographer and hastened the demise of tintype photography. Historians have emphasized that the importance of folk art is its expression of the culture of the common man. The painted tintype, without a doubt, fills this criterion.

Source: Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype & the Decorative Frame, 1860-1910: A Lost Chapter in American Portraiture, Stanley B. Burns, M.D.


Image: Anonymous, Untitled [Unknown Civil War soldier with painted landscape], c. 1865. Painted tintype. Private collection