Anna Cora Mowatt and the “It” Factor

Today, you don’t have to be a celebrity to be obsessed with your image. Right now you are probably reading this blog on a device that is also equipped to beam a picture of your features across the globe. Most of us had enough experience being photographed to have developed firm opinions on what was our “best side” and what were and were not optimal angles of our face before we even entered kindergarten. I recently read that there are now filters that one can use to digitally alter one’s facial features in order to “celebritize” them, making them appear like some air-brushed ideal unobtainable computer horror –if one wished to offer that sort of thing for global consumption.

In 1849, when Anna Cora Mowatt was at the height of her popularity, photography was still a rare, time-consuming, uncomfortable, and expensive process. Mathew Brady opened his New York studio in 1844. By the end of the century, photography would change the nature of celebrity forever. Right now, there are people who have achieved near world-wide fame on the basis of the unrelenting distribution of images of them in popular media. For example, I have no idea what field of endeavor Kim Kardashian excels in, however I could sit down and render a caricature of her face (and other parts of her anatomy) that you would probably be able to immediately recognize even if you too are unsure of the details of her resume.

During Anna Cora Mowatt’s lifetime, though, photography was slow to catch on. Despite the boost to sales provided by Civil War battle scenes and portraits of generals, Matthew Brady’s studio went bankrupt. There are only three surviving photographs of Anna Cora Mowatt that I have seen. There may be as many as four more photographs that were taken of her during her time in London that served as the basis for steel engravings. This number is that high only because she was a celebrity. The average antebellum Victorian had zero photographs of themselves.

To give you some perspective, let’s look at some of the people around Mowatt. There are no photographs or drawings of James Mowatt. At the time of his marriage, he was a successful New York lawyer, the son of a wealthy industrialist. His wife was very famous, but there are no images of the two of them together. Walter Watts became very rich and made front page headlines for four months as his trial dragged on, but there are no photographs or drawings of him. William Foushee Ritchie, Mowatt’s second husband, was the son of an extremely wealthy, politically, and historically significant Virginia family. He was the editor of the Richmond Enquirer and was elected mayor of Richmond in 1865. If it wasn’t destroyed during the Civil War, there may be an oil painting of him somewhere. I have found no photographs of him, however. Epes Sargent was a well-known poet, author, and the literary editor of one of the U.S.’s leading newspapers. There are two steel engravings of him, but no existing photographs.

The three photographs that we do have of Mowatt are all from the 1850’s. The two were publicity photos to go along with the publication of Autobiography of an Actress. Mowatt is 34 years old in these pictures. This is one of the only times in her life she wore her hair short. She’d been through a serious illness and appears heavier than she does elsewhere. I have colorized these photos and removed a stain on her forehead. A lock of her hair is also included with her picture so you can see her natural hair color.

The second image is a profile that was taken a few years later – circa 1856, I think – as part of her participation on a committee to have Mt. Vernon turned into a national monument. Mowatt was appointed the first Vice-Chair of that organization. This portrait is still displayed on the Mt. Vernon website. In my opinion, this is a good picture of her.

In addition to the three photographs of Mowatt, there are around a dozen drawings. These range from high quality steel engravings to sketches that aren’t merely bad likenesses, they are obviously poor artistic efforts like this newspaper drawing.

At the high end of the scale of verisimilitude are the steel engravings of Mowatt. When reproduced at full resolution and/or colorized, these illustrations can have a near photographic quality. Several of these are reported to be based on photographs (these are the lost photos I referred to earlier and have never seen). The problem with steel engravings is that they are the creations of artists, not photographs. These portraits can contain exaggerations and conventionalizations of the subject’s features according to the artist’s design or unconscious preferences. For example in the full length portraits of Mowatt in costume as Rosalind and Beatrice in Tallis’ Dramatic Magazine, she appears plump and full-figured. In reality, she was so flat-chested that the wardrobe mistress at her first engagement in London immediately put her in a corset with a padded bosom and laced it so tightly she nearly passed out on stage.1 She reported herself to be a little over medium height (maybe 5’6?). E.L. Davenport estimated her weight to be around ninety pounds in letter he wrote 1848.2 And yet in these illustrations, she appears fleshy and dimpled because that was the popular style for English actresses at that time.

In this steel engraving, done at nearly the same time, she appears much thinner. Her features are more angular. This illustration is also supposed to be based on a photographic source.

These illustrations, done by noted American engraver, John Chester Buttre, in 1860, give Mowatt’s face an entirely different look. She is in her forties in these pictures. Buttre was known for the exactness of his portraits, but his pictures of women tended to be somewhat flat and unemotional.

These two steel engravings were both done by English engraver, Paine of Islington, for the same issue of Tallis’ Dramatic Magazine in 1851. She’s wearing the same dress in each picture. I have not been able to determine which is the original and which is the re-do or find any explanation of why a second engraving was done.

Hands down, the best portrait I’ve ever found of Mowatt is this 1847 watercolor from the Victoria and Albert museum. It’s a publicity shot of Mowatt as Lucy Ashton in “Bride of Lammermoor.” Although it is called a “watercolor,” it looks like it might be a hand-tinted photograph. Unlike any of the other pictures I’ve presented, this dramatic pose of this picture really lets Mowatt’s winning and exuberant personality shine through.

Dear Reader, you may, after I have gone to some effort to explain how few photographs there are of her and how poor many of the illustrations of her are, be wondering, “Is this woman crazy? If there’s only one really decent photo of Anna Cora Mowatt , what makes this person think she’s qualified to pass any sort of judgement on what this lady really looked like?” Well, I’m not going to go too far out on a limb defending my precarious grip on sanity, but I do feel my assurance about Mowatt’s appearance is based on a firm foundation.

In those days before photography took hold, theatre aficionados were much more precise and verbose in creating detailed word pictures of their favorites. I might not have many photographs of Mowatt to share with you, but I have loving and detailed descriptions of her face and form from friends, critics, little boys, poets, soldiers, and even from Edgar Allan Poe.

And that, dear Reader, means that there will be a part II to this discussion.

1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 277.
2. Davenport, E.L. quoted in Eric Wollencott Barnes. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954.

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