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19th-Century Portraits of Historical Figures, Guided by Their Spirits

An American artist couple known as Wella P. and L. Pet Anderson made sketches of the dead that drew inspiration not from photographs or other visual records but from supposed communication with the departed themselves.

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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Anthony van Dyke (all images courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries unless otherwise noted)

As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.

By the late 19th century, an American artist couple known as Wella P. and L. Pet Anderson had made a name for themselves through their business of drawing life-size, pencil bust portraits. Far from ordinary, these were sketches of the dead that drew inspiration not from photographs or other visual records but from supposed communication with the departed themselves. Such spirit drawings emerged from the Victorian fascination with Spiritualism, along with paintings and books purportedly inspired or even produced entirely by the dead.

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Cover of the biographical and descriptive catalog of Pet and Wella Anderson’s spirit art gallery (c. 1874) (public domain image via Hathi Trust)

The Andersons, who originally lived somewhere out West, created thousands of portraits over the course of their career. Pet served as the “magnet” to attract spirits and Wella as the illustrator. He would enter a trance state, with his hands guided entirely by the invisible forces. And for some reason never explained, he used only Faber’s No. 1 or No.2 pencils.

A cabinet maker from a poor background who received minimal education, Wella only had one experience in the field of art: painting signs. His artistry, essentially, was bestowed upon him by his spirit guides. For her part, Pet had apparently made contact with the spirit world since infancy and built up quite a reputation as a medium by the time she married Wella around 1856. Wella received more than he signed up for, though, as about two years after the pair wed, he began to fall under the complete control of spirits. Every time he finished a panel for a cabinet, he would either mark it with a pencil or deface it by other means. Left with no choice, he gave up his business and surrendered to his chosen path as a spirit artist.

The Andersons’ movie script-worthy biography is recorded in a catalog for one very remarkable series of 28 portraits they started in 1869, to record a group of people they called “The Ancient Band.” The band, in the couple’s words, comprised the spirits of great leaders, intellectuals, and creatives from history who had come together to impart their knowledge to mankind and better the human race — to “institute a system of liberal education FOR THE PEOPLE, simplify the sciences, and popularize and liberalize religious ideas in such a manner as to make the human family a BAND OF BROTHERS,” as the catalog describes. Its members had contacted the Andersons to garner the public’s attention and extend their influence. Among the people with whom Wella and Pet communicated were Plutarch, Confucius, Buddha, and King Alfred the Great.

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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Plutarch

I have not been able to track down the original drawings, but they survive through cartes de visite taken by San Francisco photographer William Shew. Back then, anyone could purchase the full set of 28 for $6; a number of museums today own copies of the photographs. (Northwestern University owns the full set in its massive Michael McDowell Death Collection and digitized it at Hyperallergic’s request.) But in 1874, the collection of large portraits was publicly exhibited as the “Spirit Art Gallery” in San Francisco and drew many visitors. They hung on the walls of an organization known as the Pacific Art Union, which also published the accompanying catalog that year.

Its 40 pages provide overviews of the Band’s history as well as each of the 28 spirits’ origins on earth — supposedly received through the mediumship of a Dr. James Cooper of Bellefontaine, Ohio,  who had found himself under the Band’s control, too, as early as 1857. As the story goes, the Band was formed by Yermah, a resident of the (legendary) island of Atlantis ; Adehl, a wise Brahmin; and Arbaces, an Egyptian priest and philosopher. Over the centuries, the triad increased their squad to include other notables, from men of science like Pythagoras and Copernicus to men of might like Alaric, king of the Visigoths.

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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Yermah
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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Adehl

Yermah was the first to reach the Andersons in 1869. The couple never drew the entire Band, but in 1871, while visiting San Francisco, they came under the exclusive control of some of its members. People complained that the artists were being monopolized, but when Wella and Pet tried to fulfill their requests, those drawings would just result in portraits of a Band member. The final collection includes only one character who had no chance to leave behind an exceptional history: a girl named “Dawn,” who died shortly after she was born in the 1700s but joined the Band as a “helper” to more strongly connect members with a Victorian public. Her portrait depicts her around the age of 24.

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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of “Dawn”

Wella’s pencil allegedly moved with lightning speed, and sessions rarely exceeded 12 minutes, with most of the portraits finished in 10 sessions. The 28 drawings of the Band depict each subject in three-quarter profile, with nearly all turned to our left. Finely rendered, the figures boast delicate shading and soft lines and reveal incredible attention to detail. Each “sitter” also appears in the costume of his or her time and region. Sir Francis Bacon, for instance, wears a ruff (but no tall hat with which he is often portrayed wearing). But some details seem a little odd, such as the fact that Confucius wears no familiar beard and keeps his hair in a braid under a domed cap (the catalog says he did so “to keep it out of his way”).

It’s tough to believe that the spirits of people like Heloise and Abelard came back to guide a pencil in the hand of an American centuries later, but these portraits do have a likeness to their subjects. The most obvious explanation is that the Andersons modeled their drawings off found images. Their portrait of the Greek poet Pindar, for instance, resembles one 1820 illustration by William Blake — curiously, part of a series of sketches Blake claims he received in visions. It’ll be tough to prove if the Andersons had access to such drawings, but no matter the process, the entire series remains incredibly impressive: it likely required a lot of research, as the published biographies are largely accurate, right down to their dates (although a number of people portrayed, like Yermah, may not even have existed).

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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Heloise and Abelard

The Spirit Art Gallery received rave reviews when it opened, and various news publications praised the drawings for their deftness alone.

“They are really creditable works of art,” the San Francisco Daily Chronicle wrote. “The drawings are not always correct, but the shading and general finish evice wonderful skill and proficiency in the use of the pencil.”

And from the San Francisco Daily Evening Post:  “As Pencil Paintings, they are worthy [of] the attention of Art critics. No doubt the Exhibition will attract crowds of people, for it will be well worth a visit.”

Its catalog, unfortunately, is among the few remaining documents that provide clues to the Andersons’ lives, and the couple’s drawings seem lost to time. But Shew’s photographs of the works are among a few readily found. This unique series especially speaks to the fascination these artists had not only Spiritualism, but also with science, religion, philosophy, and history.

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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Sir Francis Bacon
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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Gautama
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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Confucius
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William Shew, c. 1874 carte de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portrait of Pindar
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Henri de Brianville and Alfred the Great
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of John Giocondo and Pietro Vecchia
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Peter Korzakieff and Thomas Cranmer
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Hassan Al Meschid and Arbaces
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Catallus and Omar I
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William Shew, c. 1874 cartes de visite of Pet and Wella Anderson’s pencil portraits of Orondo and Ayotte
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