Woman from Easton, Pennsylvania

What it is:

Cabinet card measuring 4.25 x 6.5 inches.

What I know about it:

Photographer is S. B. Hoffmeier of Easton, Pennsylvania.  Otherwise undated and unidentified.


Last week I toured a small museum near my apartment dedicated to American art  and furnishings from the Colonial and Federal periods.  One item was a painting, a portrait of a woman sitting under a tree reading something (I think it was a letter, but maybe a book, I just don’t remember now).  The museum’s docent explained  all the various clues in the painting that would lead you to understand that this woman was rich.  The luxurious clothes, the way the landscape suggested she controlled much acreage, and, of all things, the reading material.  The fact that she was literate at all meant that she was a woman of privilege.  And here I just thought it was a pretty picture!  I keep forgetting that when time is required to do a painting, it is worthwhile to invest it with meaning.  But with photos, it’s easy to assume that things were just thrown together.  It’s easy to assume that our Easton woman here showed up to the studio, the photographer posed her with this backdrop in front of one of his standard prop chairs, and handed her a book to give it all a little extra dimension.  It’s easy to assume that there are a hundred other portraits stamped Hoffmeier of Easton with different ladies holding that same book behind that same chair, that times had changed in the decades since that painting and that it was all about knocking out pretty pictures rather than creating revealing portraits.  I still assume that this book is just a generic studio prop with no particular meaning to our woman here, but the painting last week reminded me to not assume that the presence of the book means nothing at all, to not assume that there is no more meaning to what I’m looking at than what appears obvious.

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