Portraits & Paintings

 

Today images are taken for granted. However, in the 1850s when Belmont Mansion was occupied by Adelicia Acklen and her family the color printing press was still years away, and the camera was new, experimental, and primitive. Printing presses could only reproduce an image after a craftsman had turned that image into a stone or steel etching or engraving. To a person of the nineteenth century, the copy was a work of art and very important. An artist had to sit in front of the original piece being copied and repaint it in order for a person to obtain a copy. Faithfulness to the original painting was important for these highly skilled craftsmen. The teaching of this craft was emphasized at major Italian art academies until the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century. The best copyist could only copy about twelve to fourteen complete paintings a year. Therefore, a month’s salary went into each painting. Also, the copy artist would often have to pay a sitting fee to the gallery or the owner of the work being copied, making the better copies more expensive. There were often long waiting lists for copyists to reproduce the more popular paintings.

 

Americans placed a great deal of importance on copies of paintings they called “Old Masters”, the Italian and Spanish artists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and (to a lesser extent) eighteenth centuries. Most Americans never went to Europe and never saw these important paintings. At best they may have seen one or two black and white engravings of the paintings in a book, so to see the copies was the closest they would come to seeing the originals. Thus these copies while to our 21st century minds may seem like lesser imitations of art they were in fact prized possessions to 19th century families like the Acklens.