Smithsonian Archives Month: Finding a Painting of Yourself in Our Archives

Emily on September 30, 2013

October is Archives Month and this year blogs across the Smithsonian will highlight "true stories" about their collections and give an inside look at the Institution's archival collections and practices. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian's Archives Month website. Collections Database Assistant Emily Moazami tells a true story from the Photo Archives here at American Art.

This is the true story of how Heather Maxwell found herself in our Peter A. Juley & Son Collection of photographs. I don't mean "finding herself" in a metaphysical or spiritual way—rather finding a photograph of herself in our collection.

A short while ago I received an email from Ms. Maxwell of Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland. While searching our SIRIS catalogue, she discovered the record for a painting by the title Heather MacFarlane in our Juley Collection. She explained to me that her maiden name was MacFarlane and that when she was seven or eight years old, artist Molly Guion had painted her portrait while visiting Canongate. Maxwell had been trying to track down a photograph of the painting and for comparison; she sent me a photograph she had of Guion painting her portrait. I went to our stacks, pulled the Juley photograph of the finished painting, and sure enough, it was a match. I scanned the image and sent it to Maxwell, who was thrilled to see the portrait again and to know that her portrait was at the Smithsonian.

But the story doesn't end there. A short while later, Maxwell and her husband Martin were visiting Washington and they made an appointment to see the Juley print and other photographs of Guion's paintings. During her visit, Maxwell told me some fun stories about the painting. Apparently, Guion used painter Sir Henry Raeburn's studio in York Place, Edinburgh for the portrait sessions. The artist also wanted to include a cat in the painting, but young Heather was so frightened of cats that instead she posed with her arms crossed and Guion later painted a feline in place.

It's true stories like this one that make my job so rewarding. Connecting people directly with our collections, putting materials in context, and exchanging stories and knowledge are some of the things we hope and strive for at the start of each workday.

And that is the true story of how Heather Maxwell crossed an ocean to find herself in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Photo Archive.