Living Pictures: Gilded Age Portrait Photography

Living Pictures: Gilded Age Portrait Photography

Erin Pauwels, an author and historian of American art and visual culture, will give a lecture at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, February 7: Living Pictures: Gilded Age Portrait Photography. Her research explores portraiture and identity formation, celebrity culture, and intersections between theater and the visual arts.

Pauwels is an Associate Professor of American Art at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture with a special interest in photography, media theory, and ecocriticism. Her first book, Napoleon Sarony’s Living Pictures: The Celebrity Photograph in Gilded Age New York (Penn State University Press, 2024), recontextualizes the legacy of a prominent nineteenth-century artist to reveal how the emergence of mass media and celebrity culture reshaped traditional definitions of art and artistic authorship.

Her lecture will examine the vibrant history of Sarony, a celebrity photographer once known as “the father of artistic photography in America.” During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Sarony’s opulent portrait studio on Union Square was a New York City landmark visited by famous figures such as Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain.

“Sarony was best known for his fusion of theater and photography,” Pauwels said. “He constructed elaborate studio settings, invented a special posing stand that created the illusion of motion, and encouraged subjects to perform for his camera.”

Pauwels’ lecture will describe Sarony’s innovative artistic methods, his colorful encounters with Gilded Age clientele, and his lasting impact on the art of photography. Her book offers the first comprehensive account of a major American photographer and the global reach of his work.

Tickets: $10 | Members free

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Erin Pauwels earned a Ph.D. in Art History and American Studies at Indiana University in 2015 and an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University in 2008. Her work appears in the journals American Art, Panorama, and History & Technology, as well as in edited volumes such as Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography (University of California Press, 2020) and Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture (Smithsonian Institution, 2018).