I have long been interested in what people surround themselves with in the places they call home. These two images are among those that intrigue me—pictures of interior rooms of homes—a bedroom, sitting room with a woman at their center—made about a century ago. With the inclusion of figures they are portraits of loneliness or contemplation, within the sanctuary of home. They are portraits of women who sat upright, even within their familiar rooms, upon a straight-backed chair, frills of a blouse subdued by over-garments—a dark dress, a heavy shawl. Women who have been adjusted and positioned, certain details of their surroundings modified, by female counterparts—a photographer and a painter.
Chansonetta Stanley Emmons photographed the middle-aged daughter of a deceased friend in a small bedroom of her home. Floral panels frame the composition. Mrs. Porter is dressed in what may be black and sits between a bed and a bureau in dim light. Is she in the room once occupied by her mother—or is it her own? Is she is mourning or merely elegantly attired for the camera? Though painted two decades after the photograph was made, Gertrude Fiske’s grandmother conveys a similar nineteenth-century feeling, but seems disengaged from her setting. Fiske has manipulated the light to focus her composition on the figure facing the glow from a hearth or a window. A ceramic jug and two copper plates decorate a chest of drawers. The chair to her right may belong to a dining table. But it is her pensive gaze that suggests clues to her circumstances more than the room’s details. Fiske posed models for her character studies like Grandmother.
Because of technological considerations that entailed long photographic exposures, Emmons also posed her figures. Both their subjects appear reflective, even melancholy as they hold their poses, as calculated by Emmons and Fiske.
Using only natural light to achieve high contrast and rich tones in her black and white prints, Emmons portrayed generations of homesteaders and rural folkways, some soon-to-vanish during her lifetime. In homes in the west-central foothills area of Kingfield, Maine, she posed willing subjects for the long exposures she made with a bulky Century camera, then developed and printed her images from 5 x 7-inch glass plate negatives. Widowed, she raised a daughter who became her assistant, as she presented her photographs in lantern slide shows.
Jane Gertrude Fiske, 1879-1961, Grandmother, 1926, Oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 42 ½ inches, Farnsworth Art Museum Gift of the Estate of Miss Gertrude Fiske 1966.
Emmons’s background in painting prepared her to consider composition, as did Gertrude Fiske’s studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Fiske studied with Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, and Philip Leslie Hale, and during summers with Charles H. Woodbury, in Ogunquit, Maine, beginning in 1909. She achieved success as a landscape and portrait painter, and lived in Massachusetts and in a summer home in Ogunquit where she painted and exhibited her work into the 1950s.
These images prompt narrative, speculation; they are interior scenes produced by women who worked inside and outside their own homes into the early decades of the twentieth century. Whether they deemed home to be a haven of domestic bliss, stifling confinement, or somewhere in between, their subject was female sanctuary. For many women, these were the spaces they configured around family life; and places where they could think. Is it the details of these rooms or their occupants that is the subject of the camera—do they form inseparable parts of a whole?
Featured image above top:
Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858-1937, Mrs Polly Vose Porter, Kingfield Maine, C 1903, Print from glass plate negative, Farnsworth Art Museum Gift of Marius Peladeau and Sam Pennington