In the early 1800s, an increasing number of artists and folk painters plied their trade in American cities and towns. Those who could afford it could choose to have their family’s portraits painted, to preserve a faithful likeness and a moment in time. Although a painter captured a family’s likeness with his skill, he did not work alone. The subjects of the work often helped shape the final product, deciding how to present themselves in the portrait.
In the mid-1800s, the advent of photography brought portraiture to the masses and the tradition of sitters helping craft their own presentation continued. The subjects of the family portraits gathered here decided what to wear, what to hold in their hands, and how to pose for the photographer to convey information about themselves and what they valued. In many cases, the subject of a family portrait chose to be depicted in his Masonic apron, or wearing a fraternal pin, showing how highly he regarded a particular organization and how much he counted his membership as part of his identity.