Self-Portrait

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Self-Portrait

United States, 1849
Paintings
Oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Thomas A. Anderson in Memory of Thomas A. Anderson, Sr. (M.74.71)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

The inscription on the reverse indicates that this is a self-portrait....
The inscription on the reverse indicates that this is a self-portrait. It does appear to be a self, portrait to judge from the similarity of the likeness to the portrait of the artist by CHARLES LORING ELLIOTT, C. 1845, in the collection of the National Academy of Design. Its strong lighting and somewhat photographic quality are characteristic of a new degree of realism that was transforming Spencer's formerly romantic manner at this point in his career and was to dominate his future work, as indeed it would that of Elliott's. On the other hand, Spencer's portrait of himself is more flattering than his likeness by Elliott. The self-portrait's hard, direct gaze is encountered in numerous other portraits by Spencer. Spencer's wife, who remained in New York City rather than move with her husband to upstate New York in 1858, later charged him with insanity. His letters do not appear to support this charge.
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About The Era

After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48)....
After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Economic growth, spurred by new technologies such as the railroad and telegraph, assisted the early stages of empire building. As a comfortable and expanding middle class began to demonstrate its wealth and power, a fervent nationalist spirit was celebrated in the writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Artists such as Emanuel Leutze produced history paintings re-creating the glorious past of the relatively new country. Such idealizations ignored the mounting political and social differences that threatened to split the country apart. The Civil War slowed development, affecting every fiber of society, but surprisingly was not the theme of many paintings. The war’s devastation did not destroy the American belief in progress, and there was an undercurrent of excitement due to economic expansion and increased settlement of the West.
During the postwar period Americans also began enthusiastically turning their attention abroad. They flocked to Europe to visit London, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Berlin, the major cities on the Grand Tour. Art schools in the United States offered limited classes, so the royal academies in Germany, France, and England attracted thousands of young Americans. By the 1870s American painting no longer evinced a singleness of purpose. Although Winslow Homer became the quintessential Yankee painter, with his representations of country life during the reconstruction era, European aesthetics began to infiltrate taste.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.