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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Painting: 19th century: (Portrait Sketch of an Actor)
(Portrait Sketch of an Actor)

(Portrait Sketch of an Actor)
about 1830
Unidentified artist
oil on wood
20 x 15 7/8 in. (50.9 x 40.4 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase

This unfinished portrait captures the guile and wariness of an actor who very likely had to struggle for a living. America’s middle class in the nineteenth century regarded actors as little better than peddlers and cardsharps. Only a few, such as Edwin Booth and Fanny Kemble, managed to achieve a measure of respectability. The uncertain, appraising look in the man’s eyes undercuts the cocky assurance of his preposterous and tattered straw hat. In 1867 a critic for the Atlantic Monthly wrote: “It is an accepted dogma in dramatic art, that whatever is presented on the stage must necessarily be enlarged and exaggerated . . . [an actor] is apt to represent all shades and degrees of passion through . . . exaggerated tone, stride, and gesture.”

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