Pictures in the Parlor

February 1, 2013 — July 6, 2013

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Media - 2000.47.35 - SAAM-2000.47.35_1 - 80042

Unidentified, Young Boy in Black Suit, ca. 1880

Pictures in the Parlor examines decorative images from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century that were used in domestic interiors to convey the values, aspirations, and achievements of their owners. The installation includes twenty-five painted tintypes, twenty-one hand-colored photographs, and nine folios from a Victorian collage album from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection.


Photography was introduced to the United States in the 1840s, allowing a wider range of Americans to afford portraits and decorative images; paintings and sculptures had previously been beyond the means of most families. Painted tintypes and hand-colored photographs democratized home décor, enabling ordinary Americans to own pictures that recalled art in upper-class homes. The parlor became the center of middle-class domestic life, a place where pictures that reflected a family’s aesthetics, status, and history were prominently displayed.

Nine folios from an album of collages portray domestic interiors, each representing a different room in a home. These collages are typical of the scrapbook houses” made by young, middle-class girls in the nineteenth century, helping to prepare them for domestic life through designing the interior spaces that would one day convey their families’ status and values.

The installation highlights objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The artworks were selected by independent scholar Rafe Statfeld Recanati of New York.