L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, November 4, 2016

Painting confronts photography, 1865 - Interior With Portraits by Thomas Le Clear

This painting was commissioned by Franklin Sidway, a businessman and banker from Buffalo, New York. The figures of the children at the center of the composition are posthumous portraits of his two younger siblings. The girl, Parnell Sidway, died at the age of thirteen in 1849 - sixteen years before this painting was completed - and the boy, James Henry Sidway, died at the age of twenty-five battling a hotel fire only months prior to the painting being commissioned. The likenesses for both children were taken from very early daguerreotypes that had been kept in the family. At this period there was ever increasing tension between the fields of portrait painting and photography; was the former headed for obsolescence, was the latter an art or merely technology. And it was certainly considered bad form for an artist to use a photographic image as a reference for a portrait likeness. But in this case there was no other option. And I find it so interesting that Le Clear faced the situation head on; he unapologetically places the children in the artist's painting studio - surrounded by paintings, sculptures, and casts; all the attributes, the landmarks of the painter's atelier - where they pose stiffly - as they would have needed to do to accommodate the long exposures necessary - for the daguerreotypist. I find this most odd portrait equal parts charming, poignant, and audacious.

A sweet detail is the boy's hand clutching his sister's skirts.
The inclusion of the dog here can be seen as a challenge to the limitations of photography as it was then; a dog could never be
expected to hold any sort of a pose, much less to respect the immobility required for early photography's long exposures.

Thomas Le Clear (17 March 1818, Owego, New York - 26 November 1882, Rutherford Park, New Jersey), American painter. Self taught, he sold his first paintings - copies of a painting of Saint Matthew - at the age of twelve. When he was fourteen, his family moved to Ontario, Canada, and only a few years later he set out as an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter, traveling in upstate New York and as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1839 he moved to New York City, "an almost penniless stranger," but managed to open a studio. He reportedly studied for several years with Henry Inman, and by 1845 he had begun exhibiting at the National Academy of Design. Two years later he moved to Buffalo, New York and quickly became an important member of the city's Arts community, acquiring many wealthy local patrons. A founding member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, he served on its board for many years. In the early 1860s, though, he returned to New York City, where he was elected to full membership of the National Academy of Design in 1863. It appears that he was considered one of the most prominent portrait painters on the East Coast. In addition to portraits, he also produced a substantial number of genre paintings. He died in New Jersey at the age of sixty-four.


Two American Daguerreian cameras, similar to the one in the painting.
The children's gravestones, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.


(Click to see a much larger image of the full painting.)


  1. As one who grew up in Buffalo this was a particularly informative and evocative post. And a good example of the surprises that always await a visit to your site.

  2. A remarkable combination of a portrait and a genre painting, with a touching backstory. Thank you for another informative post. The carving of the armchair is beautifully rendered in this painting.