American Portrait Prints
The American Antiquarian Society contains a vast collection of American portrait prints dating from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. Most of the prints depicted prominent figures and were created to be available to the public. Through these portraits, one can identify successful and famous members of society, including United States presidents and other government officials from a time before there were photographs.
Arranged alphabetically by name, the portrait collection is maintained in the Graphic Arts Department and contains roughly five thousand images from newspapers, periodicals, books, letterheads, and announcements. An additional one thousand images of sitters from the city of Worcester can be found in the Worcester Portrait Prints Collection.
The production of portrait prints began in Massachusetts and expanded to other American cities by the end of the eighteenth century. These ranged from simple almanac cuts to elegant mezzotints.
The two most common processes found in the AAS portrait collection are line engraving and mezzotint. The typical format was a half-length or bust of a person enclosed in an oval frame within a rectangle. These portraits were commonly seen as frontispieces in books and magazines. Publishers used such portraits to add to the commercial value of their publications.
Mezzotint became a popular process in the eighteenth century and was revived in the mid-nineteenth century. It consisted of scraping and burnishing highlights on a roughened plate. These, like the line engravings, were not modeled after a person from life, but instead, copied from paintings by such famous portrait artists as Charles Wilson Peale.
The most popular process of the nineteenth century that surpasses all the other styles in realism is the lithograph. Many were based on daguerreotype portraits of prominent Americans, including Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. They were made to depict a bust-length image or, in some cases, full-length portraits with elaborate backgrounds.
Some of the most famous portraits in the collection include an engraving by Cornelius Tiebout of President Thomas Jefferson and a lithograph of Andrew Jackson by Albert Newsan. Other artists represented in the portrait print collection include James Heath, John Sartain, and Francis D'Avignon.
An online inventory for this collection is available.