Nineteenth-century portrait photography was rich in creative artifices and illusions. Some of these are familiar to today’s enthusiasts and easy to spot, but others remain obscure and unrecognized. In this blog post, I’d like to share what I’ve been able to learn about one lesser-known device I call the Rhode Island Window (RIW).
Why give it that name? Well, its main feature was a frame for a pretend window—typically equipped with drapery, a faux grid of muntin bars, a sill that jutted out underneath, and a decorative panel below that—through which multiple painted scenes could be interchangeably displayed as backgrounds for photographic portraits. And this distinctive combination of window frame, variable painted views, and fixed decorative lower panel seems to have been used only in Rhode Island.
I became aware of the RIW a couple years ago when comparing the backgrounds of a few cartes de visite taken by photographers in Providence and discovering odd similarities and differences between them. Since then, I’ve been snapping up additional examples whenever I can find them, mostly on eBay. They’re not all that common, but fortunately for me, nobody else seems interested in them per se, or even to have recognized that they constitute a coherent type. I’m a little worried that by writing here about the RIW, I might spark an increased demand for these photographs that will make it harder for me to keep gathering and studying them. But for the moment, at least, RIW photographs as such seem to have no special monetary value as collectibles, and I’d be happy for things to stay that way.
At least four different studios located along Westminster Street in Providence, Rhode Island used RIWs during the 1860s: Mason and Gardner, Theodore F. Chase, S. B. Brown, and H. G. Pearce. So did photographers working simultaneously across Narragansett Bay in Newport, including J. D. Fowler and Joshua A. Williams, although their work is less common and consequently more difficult to trace. And so did a tintype photographer of unknown location and later date, although the construction and painting style in this case is noticeably different.
Overall, the evidence points to the RIW as highly localized and relatively short-lived photographic device. As an added attraction, the earlier painted scenes sometimes correspond to specific locations near the studios in which they were used. I’ve identified a few of these cases myself, and someone with a better knowledge of local Rhode Island history in the 1860s could probably identify even more.
A RIW photograph is easy to recognize once you know what to look for. But figuring out exactly how the illusion was contrived in the studio poses a more interesting challenge. How were the frames designed and manipulated? How were the different window scenes swapped in and out? Was the technique pretty consistent from photographer to photographer, or were there significant variations? Those are some of the questions I’ll be exploring below based on an examination of thirty-two examples in my own collection, plus two others with scans available online.
My first three specimens come from the studio of George A. Mason and J. A. Gardner at 81 Westminster Street in Providence. The decorative panel underneath the sill features the Rhode Island state emblem of an anchor with the motto “HOPE,” giving us an additional reason to associate the RIW with that state. Two different views appear in the window itself: one seen in the photograph on the left, and another in the photographs at center and right. Both views show churches, or at least buildings that look a lot like churches.
Depending on whether the subject is standing or seated, the photograph shows more or less of the window opening and captures it from a different angle. If these three examples are any indication, the photographer might have routinely picked whichever painting put the tops of the towers a little above the level of the subject’s head to simulate a plausible perspective and achieve a desired balance between buildings and sky.
Meanwhile, if we compare the two photographs that share the same painted window view, at center and at right, we see that the vertical muntin bar crosses over it in a different place each time: in the photograph at center it’s further left, while in the photograph at right it’s further right. Judging from the different dimensions of the window’s “panes,” this effect seems to be due more to the bars being movable within the frame than to the scene being movable within the window.
In the photograph on the right, the horizontal bar casts an odd shadow onto the painted scene, implying a distance between the two which increases from left to right. The frame assembly as a whole was positioned at an oblique angle relative to the wall behind it, as can be seen by comparing its lines to those of the wall trim. With that in mind, the angle of the shadow cast by the bar onto the painting could be explained by the painting being fixed to the wall behind the frame, or leaning against or away from the frame at an angle, or sagging backwards in the frame. We may not yet have enough data to know which is the correct explanation, but the shadow needs some explanation.
My next few examples come from the studio of Theodore F. Chase (b. 1842) of 69 Westminster Street. Much as we saw with Mason and Gardner, Chase’s RIW combines a single, consistent frame assembly with two different window scenes. One of them—illustrated below by two different photographs—again shows what appears to be a church. As before, the position of the vertical muntin bar varies relative to the scene behind it. The decorative panel this time appears to feature a carved wreath, although we never get a really good look at it.
These two photographs introduce a feature common to many RIWs: a richly patterned curtain draped over one edge of the frame. The arrangement seen on the left is typical: only the edge of the frame nearest the center of the image can be seen, and the curtain is draped around that edge. In this case, the viewer could imagine that the unseen left side of the window was fitted with another, similar curtain to make the drapery neatly symmetrical.
The arrangement found on the right is less common, although not unique: the side of the frame nearest the center of the image is left bare while the curtain is wrapped around the outer edge of the frame. The photograph on the right is also unusual for showing the top of the window frame—one of the few times we get to see this—as well as something else that looks at first glance like trim near the ceiling on the adjacent wall. On closer inspection, the angle of this “trim” and the shadow it casts on the wall (just as wide as the shadow cast by the top of the frame on the painted scene) both suggest that it’s actually in a plane parallel to that of the frame itself, projecting forward from the wall at an oblique angle. Maybe the “trim” is some kind of upper support for the frame, or even a rail along which it was designed to slide—at this point, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Whatever it is, this is the only RIW photograph I’ve found that shows it.
I haven’t managed to identify the church, but the photograph on the right gives us a glimpse of another building next door to it, evidently a shop of some kind, which could offer a further clue as to location. The second word on its sign is clearly “MARKET,” while the first word is partly obscured by the curtain and may end in “-TON” (“Boston”?).
I’ve also found one single tintype made with this same RIW and scene (in mirror image, of course, as with all tintypes). It isn’t “signed” by Chase with a backstamp as the CDVs shown above are, but it was presumably also taken in his studio.
This tintype is the only image I’ve found from the 1860s that clearly shows both side edges of the RIW frame assembly. The painted view appears to be a close fit for the frame, but it may extend slightly beyond it on one side—follow the course of the picket fence in the close-up shown below, and you’ll see what could be a single picket visible past the edge. If so, it would give us some evidence that painted views were being inserted behind the RIW frames rather than into them.
Next up is the RIW used by photographer S. B. Brown of 101 Westminster Street. This time, the decorative panel below the window definitely features a carved wreath. One of Brown’s views depicts a church, although he often showed too little of it for it to be readily identifiable as anything more specific than an outdoor scene. I’ll call this “Brown type #1.”
I would have assumed these were two distinct and unconnected views if I hadn’t come across another remarkable photograph that unexpectedly pointed me in another direction. Here it is:
On the right, we see an elaborately painted frame, casting a shadow behind and below itself, with an arched opening cut into it through which a patriotic eagle-and-shield motif is visible. On the left, we see Brown’s RIW frame with its curtain and muntin bars missing, confirming that these were removable. Instead of providing a “window” onto the painted church scene, the bare frame has simply been placed in front of it, exposing more of it than usual. This wider view reveals in turn that “Brown type #1” and “Brown type #2” actually relied on two parts of a single, continuous painting which can be reconstructed as follows:
We know from the Theodore F. Chase tintype shown earlier that some other RIWs relied on narrower paintings that the window could display all at once. By contrast, Brown must have moved his frame assembly from one side of a wider painting to the other depending on which part of it he wanted to show through the window, a choice that would also have determined whether the subject needed to pose to the left or the right of it.
Another readily identifiable scene turns up in the RIW used by H. G. Pearce of 87 Westminster Street: the facade of the famous Providence Union Depot, which opened in 1847 and was destroyed by fire in 1896.
The decorative panel seen here is much less elaborate than the previous three. Moreover, every Pearce example I’ve seen shows the same view of the Providence Union Depot; no alternate views have yet surfaced. Even so, these images share enough in common with the others we’ve seen to leave no doubt that we’re dealing here with a legitimate RIW. Among other things, the muntin bars cast the usual kind of shadow on the painting behind them, and their position varies as we’ve come to expect. On the other hand, Pearce’s “bars” also have some variations in thickness which we haven’t yet encountered. In these two examples—
—the “bars” actually seem to be lengths of ribbon, or something similar, that twist between the points where they intersect. Note particularly the telltale way in which the vertical “bar” curls forward at the bottom of the window in the example on the right, which also adds a second horizontal “bar.” I suspect that the “bars” may have been handled similarly in the other RIWs we’ve examined, but that Pearce’s studio was less fastidious about making sure they were aligned correctly, inadvertently exposing the trick.
J. D. Fowler, who had a studio opposite the U. S. Naval Academy in Newport, Rhode Island, had a RIW with “bars” that similarly appear to twist and curl like ribbons, although I’ve found only one example of it, featuring a view overlooking water (presumably Narragansett Bay or the Atlantic Ocean):
Another Newport photographer was Joshua A. Williams, located opposite Vose & Sisson’s Saloons, Touro Street. Judging from the few images I know about, Williams’s RIW was unusual for not having any “bars.” Its decorative panel shows the Rhode Island state emblem, much like the one used by Mason and Gardner in Providence. Two window views are attested, although I have only one of them in my own collection, illustrated below left, showing the United Congregational Church of Newport, built in 1857. The other view, illustrated below right with an example borrowed from the website of the Mystic River Historical Society, depicts nearby Fort Dumpling, built in 1799-1800 and destroyed in 1898.
I ran across a scan posted on a Civil War discussion website of another carte de visite with a RIW that doesn’t conform to the usual “bar” pattern. The photographer isn’t identified, and the decorative panel doesn’t match any other examples we’ve seen, although it resembles H. G. Pearce’s in its austerity more closely than any other. The window scene is distinctly war-themed, and the window itself is pictured as raised rather than down, if I’m interpreting it correctly.
The RIW could also be repurposed to simulate something other than a window facing out of a building. Here’s a carte de visite by an unidentified photographer in which a RIW is made to represent a bookshelf with a transparent door (note also the patriotic eagle-and-shield motif on its decorative panel).
The spines of the books stacked at the right are labeled “HOLY BIBLE,” “BYRON,” and possibly “PARIS,” which suggests something about the kind of library the subjects of portraits like this one wanted to associate themselves with. But even more interesting is the photograph album on the left, opened to display two portraits on facing pages. This in itself would already be a neat self-referential gesture: a photograph album painted into a background scene for use in photographs. But if we look more closely at the photograph on the left, we see that it features a window in its background—one that looks remarkably like a Rhode Island Window!
All the examples I’ve shown so far date from the 1860s, and the photographers who took them all worked in Rhode Island to the extent that they’re identified. The frame assemblies and painted scenes share enough similarities to suggest they were all the work of the same person or people—consider the preponderance of views of local landmarks, most often churches, with people strolling about them; recurrent motifs such as the Rhode Island state emblem, the eagle and shield, and the carved wreath; the frequent use of ribbons or something similar to simulate “bars,” and so on. The props were probably made and marketed by some local artist or craftsman who had come up with the idea for them.
After the 1860s, though, the RIW seems to have fallen out of use among carte de visite photographers. Maybe tastes had changed, or maybe the props hadn’t held up well over time and couldn’t readily be replaced.
However, a RIW with interchangeable scenes appears in some later tintypes, dating from perhaps the 1880s. It has a few characteristics that set it apart from the earlier RIWs. The window views used in it have a distinctive style that many critics would identify with a “folk art” aesthetic. Also, where the old RIW seems to have had feet to hold it in place, the new one had wheels that are occasionally visible. My impression is that the new RIW was inspired by someone’s memory of the older version.
Shown below are four tintypes made with the later RIW, all apparently taken in the same studio. The two on the left show one window view, while the two on the right show another, and in the example at the far right the frame assembly itself is differently painted. For what it’s worth, I think the light-colored rectangular things that partly obscure the window in examples two and four are light reflectors.
The large, stylized trees in the two window views look somewhat alike. Close examination shows that they aren’t simply the same tree moved into different positions relative to the frame, as though we were looking at different segments of a movable panorama. However, the window views do seem to have been horizontally movable to some degree, judging from the next two examples:
This raises a question. If the painting actually extended further right than the edge of the frame in the top example, why don’t we see it sticking out there, above the subject’s shoulder? Judging from other tintypes that show more of the same RIW, it doesn’t seem as though part of the view should have been concealed behind the studio wall. Could the painted scene have been mounted on rollers as a movable panorama after all? I’m not sure how else to account for what we’re seeing here.
That said, the various views I’ve seen used with this RIW don’t seem to connect together to form any kind of continuous panoramic strip. Moreover, in the tintype shown below at left, it looks as though the board or canvas containing the window scene does extend slightly beyond the edge of the frame, allowing it to peek through behind the subject’s back (although the structure of the frame is different here too, in the area between the bottom of the window and the decorative panel underneath).
The Rhode Island Window stands out as an unusually elaborate illusion for the portrait photography of its time. Despite its limited geographic scope, it’s still worth documenting as a noteworthy feat of studio stagecraft—an impressively economical means of using a single prop to contrive multiple fictional scenes for the camera. Plenty of mysteries remain regarding its specifics, as we’ve seen. But that’s what makes it appeal so much to me as something to collect and study. After all, every fresh example has the potential to resolve some long-standing puzzle or to overturn some favorite hypothesis about how things worked, as long as we’re willing to “read” it carefully and with an open mind.
Of course, if you turn up any examples yourself, I’d be most obliged if you’d drop me a note.