John E. Brooks, son of Henry Sands Brooks, the founder of Brooks Brothers (c. 1845)

John E. Brooks, son of Henry Sands Brooks, the founder of Brooks Brothers (c. 1845) by Shepard Alonzo Mount (all images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

If you had a mind to teach a college class on the historical relationship between artists to their patrons, you could very well title it “The Dialectics of Portrait Painting,” due to the way in which each character needs and utilizes the other to endorse and corroborate their social position and expertise. Put another way: the relation between the artist and his or her patron is mutually enabling — though at times that relationship can be contentious enough to devolve into tears or even legal action.

This truth used to be more palpably obvious when it was common practice for a certain echelon of society to hire artists to paint their portraits. Nowadays, patrons have morphed into “collectors” and artists have found myriad other ways to support themselves besides commissioned portraiture. The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860 presents a selection of paintings that are wonderful examples of artist/patron dialectics and related issues: the arrival of a new merchant class, their envy and mimicry of Europeans, the development of painting as a vocation, idealization of the wealthy, and art being employed as a tool of class distinction. The show is a kind of historical stratigraphic column, revealing the layers of socioeconomic and artistic development that underlie seemingly admiring images of 19th-century New York’s high society.

The wall texts give a framework for understanding what was happening below the surface at that time. Apparently, in the early decades of the 19th century, an artistic community of portrait painters began to emerge in New York City, making painting a legitimate vocation and spawning important organizations, such as the National Academy of Design, which established an art school to train emerging painters. This community produced its own art stars, such as Henry Inman, Charles Loring Elliot, Samuel Morse, Charles Ingham, and John Singleton Copley. This development in the arts was enabled by economic development. As the text conveys, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 “made New York the international hub connecting the agricultural bounty of the upper Midwest, the cotton economy of the South, and the markets of Europe … and [the] most important port in the new nation.” In this city flooded with new money, successful investors, financiers, traders, and politicians, all of whom wanted to prove that they were members of the city’s top social ranks, helped to make sitting for one’s portrait “all the rage.” For the wealthy elite, a portrait rendered by a respected artist was a signifier of status — an oversized and ostentatious calling card.

Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks), c. 1845

Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks) (c. 1845) by Shepard Alonzo Mount

Some of the family names that have survived and flourished since that time will be eminently recognizable: Henry Sands Brooks, the founder of Brooks Brothers; the politician and onetime Mayor of the city Richard Varick; Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Making sufficiently flattering work facilitated painters’ career survival and success. In the 1800s, George Peter Healy had a portrait practice going on both shores of the Atlantic, making 17 trips between Europe and the States. On the other hand, when Ralph Earl ended up in debtors’ prison, he had to depend on the members of the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors, who went to the jail to sit for portraits so that he could earn enough for his release.

Unsurprisingly, most of the work is the portraiture version of hagiography. Techniques such as feathery brushwork and a deliberate softening of focus are often used to idealize the subject. It’s the old-timey equivalent of smearing Vaseline on the camera lens or skilfully Photoshopping an image. Many of the portraits also look stiff and mannequin-like. In the portrait of Ann Brooks “Ann Eliza Moserman Brooks (Mrs. John E. Brooks)” (c. 1845), done by Shepard Alonzo Mount, her skin is flawless, her breasts are heroically blossoming above a too-small waist, her eyes are perfectly luminous, and her gaze is stately. Her husband John E. Brooks (son of Henry Sands Brooks) has, in his portrait, the same sort of poised gaze with slightly more hauteur — perhaps to compensate for his bad combover. The portraits are so fawning that I find myself wishing for the perspective of someone like Frans Hals, who often allowed some subtle, implicit betrayal of his real feelings for his subject come to the surface.

Alexander Hamilton, c. 1804-08

Alexander Hamilton (c. 1804–08) by John Trumbull

The work in the show reads as quite antiquated, not only because this genre of painting has largely been relegated to tedious ceremonial use, but also because our current state of affairs is so much more abstracted. Nowadays, the mechanisms for affirming social position via art are more subtle and less public; they consist of ownership of an artist’s output, and more, access to intimate details of the artist’s practice and life (having exclusive studio visits or dinners and the like). Today’s artists are putatively independent actors making work for themselves and offering that work in the marketplace. Now owning the work of that undomesticated, self-directed spirit is an endorsement of the artist, but also an embrace of the role of clairvoyant, one able to predict an artist’s future rise, as well as patrician benefactor, helping the artists achieve his or her vision. Picturing Prestige reveals how in the 19th century, relations between portrait artists and wealthy patrons were more open and undisguised — both involved in a mutually beneficial PR campaign — though a fall in public estimation for only one of these actors could mean months behind bars.

Seated portrait of socialite Caroline Belmont (1829-1892)

Seated portrait of socialite Caroline Belmont (1829–92) by George Peter Alexander Healy

Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860 continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) through October 11.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...