famous oil portraits

Between 1861 and 1873, E.C. Middleton of Cincinnati published a series oval “oil portraits,” intended to have the appearance of oil paintings.  This series consisted of images of at least seventeen different subjects, including thirteen “Portraits of American Statesmen and Heroes,” two religious figures, and two British royalty.   There prints are easily recognized, but only recently has their history and significance as American prints been recognized.  [This is documented in Chris Lane’s article, “Middleton’s National Oil Portraits,” in Imprint (Vol. 42, No. 1)]

[ Click here to see images of the Middleton portraits ]

There are three aspects of particular note for Middleton’s portraits.  First is the scope of the series, an attempt by Middleton to document “American Statesmen and Heroes” (the religious figures and British Royalty are outliers).  Middleton started, in 1861, with portraits of George and Martha Washington, along with Andrew Jackson.  He soon expanded to include other statesmen, and then Civil War figures such as Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman.  After the war, Middleton even added some Southern heroes, such as Robert E. Lee, before his last new portraits of Admiral Farragut and Jefferson Davis were issued in 1867.  The run of thirteen “Statesmen and Heroes” done in quality “oil portraits” is one of the most impressive series of American prints of the nineteenth century.

Part of this is because of the type of prints Middleton issued.  These are “oil portraits,” also called “oleographs.”  This was a process where the prints were produced by chromolithography using oil based inks, printing the images on paper which was mounted on canvas.  These were specifically intended to duplicate the appearance of oil paintings.  This is a process, called “oleography,” which Middleton pioneered in America and which would later be copied successfully by Louis Prang.  These are among the finest American portrait prints of the nineteenth century, wonderful evidence of the success of Middleton’s vision.

The last aspect of note about these prints is the manner in which Middleton marketed them.  These prints were not distributed in shops or through framers, but instead were sold directly through “agents” by subscription.  The prints were sold in frames, ready to hang in the home.  Newspapers between 1861 and 1873 were filled with glowing reports of the prints being offered in different cities by Middleton’s agents, an unusual sales method which was successful for about a decade.  A typical newspaper blurb appeared in The Putnam Republican Banner (Greencastle, Indiana) on September 14,  1865.

The Greatest Achievement of the Age in Art—The portraits of the great personages of the nation constitute the only inheritance the people can receive of them save the memory of their great services.  It is all important then, that portraits of those who have lived and those yet living, which we purchase should be truthful and at the same time artistic.  Recognizing these facts, Mr. E.C. Middleton, of Cincinnati, a most eminent artist, has labored assiduously to bring about the desired result, and has succeeded admirably.  By a series of laborious and difficult experiments, which occupied much time, he has at last achieved a great triumph of Art and produced a series of national paintings in oil colors by successive impressions, which surpass even the most skilled attempts with the brush, and possess the additional advantage of being reduplicated with the same fidelity which characterizes the original.

By the end of the Civil War, the Middleton prints had proved to be quite successful, which led to a number of other firms producing copycat portraits of some of the same subjects as Middleton’s, especially Lincoln and Washington.  [ Click here to read about these copycat portraits. ]

A comprehensive study of the Middleton portraits appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Imprint, issued by the American Historical Print Collectors Society.