Art

The Somberness of 19th-Century Wedding Portrait Photos

An exhibition at Ricco/Maresca Gallery brings together 100 cabinet card portrait photos of newlyweds and a collection of vintage wedding cake toppers.

Late-19th-century cabinet card (all images courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery unless otherwise noted)

It’s a photograph with sentiments you hope will last a lifetime: the wedding portrait, in which a couple present itself to the world anew. While those that fill your Instagram feeds today burst with smiles, goofy poses, and special hashtags, the portraits taken in photography’s earlier years were really quite different. Despite the happy events they were presumably intended to celebrate, nuptial cabinet cards of the 19th century were like any other studio portrait of the time: still, stiff, and largely somber.

Late-19th-century cabinet card

This was partially due to the technology at the time, which required sitters to stay frozen for relatively long periods of time. But 19th-century wedding portraits also seemed to follow a strict iconography, as an ongoing exhibition at Ricco/Maresca Gallery showcases. I Do I Do features 100 vintage cabinet cards of brides and grooms captured together, always either sitting or standing side-by-side, with blank expressions. All date from between 1885 and 1900, and curiously, all were produced in various studios around Wisconsin.

The cards are drawn from the personal collection of gallerist Frank Maresca, which also includes another 30 portraits from states that border Wisconsin. The series thus presents a strange and mysterious trend, and it’s one that baffles Maresca himself.

“I think the fad is all based on a tradition that started in Europe,” the dealer and collector told Hyperallergic. “I can only assume — if you think about it, in 1875, Wisconsin was a relatively new state, and it’s a big state, and there were a lot of Germans and Scandinavians. Somehow the formality of the wedding portrait, of marking that moment, may have been more important in that particular part of Europe than in other parts of the world, and, as it turns out, other parts of the United States.”

The tradition of sitting for a wedding photograph, as he explained, dates to 1854, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had Roger Fenton capture them in wedding attire 14 years after their union, as the queen cultivated her now-famous passion for the budding medium. Maresca added: “It just became the fashion, the fad, to kind of recreate this royal wedding portrait.”

Late-19th-century cabinet card

At the gallery, the photographs are individually framed and hung at eye-level in one neat row across the walls, creating an experience akin to studying one very long filmstrip. The precision of the installation emphasizes the similarities of the cards, not only in size but also in their content: all the couples are in rigid poses, and all are, unsurprisingly, heterosexual. But the display draws out the subtle differences between each picture — in the exhibited body language, gestures, expressions, and costumes. There is a certain artificiality inherent to this genre of portraiture, but little details hint at the emotions hidden beneath the pageantry of the moment — a tight-lipped mouth; a clenched fist; a bride’s slight lean against her new husband’s limp arm.

It’s also telling that these men and women are almost never looking at one another, and in the rare moments that a couple does touch each other, the placement of hand within hand, or hand on shoulder, seems unnatural or forced — never truly affectionate. Mostly, they look like strangers who have no idea how to interact with each other.

To Maresca, some of this body language likely reflects social customs of the time. “You have to remember that this is [the late 19th century] and the concept of marriage — anywhere in the world — was not necessarily one of love,” he said. “It was probably more often one of convenience or one of necessity. Lots of people go into marriage with any number of fears, and I think you see all of that in the 100 sitters that are represented.”

Installation view of I Do , I Do at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Lack of evident mutual love aside, these photographs represented the established, exemplary way of life of the time, asserting that both man and wife were on a path to a secure, fruitful future; ’til death do they part. Even more ideal visions of the sacred institution are to be found in a small back room, where vintage wedding cake toppers, amassed by collector Marilynn Karp over four decades, are arranged on a multi-tiered, cake-shaped stand. Tiny plastic men and women — almost all white — smile as they stand side-by-side, clutching bouquets and each other’s arms. Dating from between 1920 and 1960, they are more modern symbols of perfect harmony, literally manufactured.

Vintage wedding cake toppers (1920–60) on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Maresca also had a fun idea to include more current views on marriage in the show. Prior to its opening, the gallery issued an open call online to collect people’s quotes on the subject. It then selected 100 and printed them on a poster; the anonymous snippets speak volumes, touching on a wide array of aspects of getting married, ups and downs included. “2 perfect people sharing 1 perfect life,” someone wrote. “They get better over time,” offered another person. And one curt submission: “Antiquated.”

Even though attitudes about marriage have changed in myriad ways since Queen Victoria’s reign, posing for a photo session to mark its beginning is one of the traditions that’s stuck over time. It is, in the end, an event that warrants recording. But while the rigid, similar-looking couples in the cabinet cards represent records of marriage as an institution guarded by tradition, the series as a whole also compels us to consider how people have since defied its conventions.

In the room with the wedding cake toppers, there’s one couple that stands out against the others: a man standing by a man, with one dressed in white, and the other, black. The shiny, plastic figurines still speak to the ceremonial protocols of classic weddings, but in the crowd of straight newlyweds, they signal one sea change in marital rituals we’re still witnessing today.

Vintage wedding cake toppers (1920–60) on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Late-19th-century cabinet card
Vintage wedding cake toppers (1920–60) on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I Do I Do continues at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 9.

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