This is, I think, my favorite myth because it is such a good idea! It appeals to my hyper organizational nature. Stay home during the winter months and paint a stock of canvases with bodies and backgrounds, then ride out in the warm months to find clients who could select a body and pay to have their own head painted on it. A real time saver for both artist and sitter, right? What could be more logical?
But there is no evidence for it. None. No artist or sitter mentioned in dairies or other written records that this practice occurred. No unfinished, headless portrait painted by an early American folk artist has been discovered in an attic or storage shed. (The few unfinished portraits that do survive inevitably include heads.) No physical evidence, like overlapping paint layers at the neck or head, has been detected on existing portraits. Nonetheless, museum guides say that someone in the group inevitably mentions this myth whenever folk art portraits come into view.
It makes sense to us today because it seems to explain the weird angles and the similarities in clothing and backgrounds of some American folk portraits. However, in portrait painting, artists typically start with the most important feature—the head or eyes—and work the rest around that. The myth also seems to explain why some of these portraits are so . . . well, irregular. The perspective is off; the arms bend in unnatural ways; the head is larger than the body. Art historians say that these anomalies occur because the painters were unschooled. They had inborn talent, yes, but without any formal art training, they didn’t understand perspective or proportion.
Because there are many examples of portraits that are highly similar in body and background, the myth spread. Scholars such as E. C. Pennington (Lessons in Likeness, 2011) and museum curators at museums like the American Folk Art Museum, Cooperstown, the Columbus Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller galleries point out the lack of evidence for this practice.
October 16, 2011 at 10:29 am (Edit)
In grade school I read a mystery book that included one of those headless canvasses so for four decades or so I’ve assumed that was true (and I’ve seen many early 19th-c portraits). Thanks for providing “the whole picture”!
Hammond-Harwood House says:
October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am (Edit)
At Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, MD, we have a portrait by Robert Edge Pine that shows that the head and body were painted separately. You can clearly see a square where the layer of canvas containing the head seems to have been glued on top of the layer showing the body. I don’t think that Pine painted a generic body and then put a specific face on it, but I haven’t been able to find a definite reason for the technique he used. Someday I hope to have time to research it…
October 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Edit)
How very odd . . . sounds like the artist glued another head onto one he didn’t like, or maybe the sitter didn’t like his first attempt so he painted another. Aren’t there X-ray machines that look underneath paint and canvas? I guess they are expensive. What a great mystery! I hope you can solve it one day.
Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm (Edit)
Is this the picture on your profile? I would like to see the portrait.
November 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm (Edit)
The folk art portrait I used to illustrate this myth is just one I found online and thought illustrated the point that heads and bodies didn’t always look like they went together. There is no known illustration of a headless portrait, so I couldn’t do that.
Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm (Edit)
There is a painting at the Fearing Tavern Museum in Wareham Mass that the sitters head is very oddly placed her a body. It has been suggested this is a stock painting finished with the sitters head. I will attempt to photograph it, but it may take sometime. The museum is operated by the local historcal society and only open on Saturday in August. It was this painting that help fuel my interest in these early American Artist.
john gebhardt says:
February 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm (Edit)
Recently purchased a 14 by 16 inch original frame portrait of a small child.
The body appears to be a photo but the head is painted. it is odd because the head appears much older then the body.
The head is a child about 2 or 3 but the body is an infant.
Can you refer us to a research site or have comment??
February 13, 2012 at 9:02 am (Edit)
Do you have any idea how old the portrait is? I have portraits, smaller than yours, of great-great-grandparents that are painted photographs, something that was done to colorize the black and white photos of the day. Could that be the case with yours?