M.M.G. in Santa Barbara, who has crammed many lives into one glorious one (tennis pro/interior designer/antiques dealer), is downsizing.
She sends me pictures of her collections, yet one image caught my eye: an ancestor portrait of someone she thought might have been an emperor.
Because I am often asked to date an unsigned ancestor portrait, and because this guy is cute (he looks like an overdressed Hugh Jackman/Wolverine), I will date this portrait, even though it may be the least valuable of her treasures.
If it is a gentleman’s visage, I date a portrait by the tie. The tie is tantamount, as styles in neckwear changed faster than coats, and ties are ancient. The word goes back to the Egyptian for Isis Knot: “Tyet.”
In the 17th century, a new style of neckwear emerged called the cravat, after the Croats, who were mercenaries to Louis XIII. They wore a loose band around the neck, emulated by the noblemen of France.
The cravat went out of favor for the bristly round starched collar called the stock (think of Dutch portraits) worn throughout Europe. A group of noblemen in England, the Marconis, decided to change that stock for something more elegant, and they reintroduced the cravat in 1780, a white band of linen, overlapping.
The Court d’Orsay introduced the black cravat on a pure linen white shirt. As Queen Victoria took the throne, the cravat became a symbol of wealth and position: the less showy the cravat, the more status a man had. Add to this the one accessory of jewelry acceptable: the stick pin.
The more subtle the cravat, the more symbolic the stickpin. The theme disclosed your tastes, the horseshoe or the gold fox head, introduced in the 1850s, worn by the ‘best’ men on a silk black cravat.
Now we come to the denouement: M.M.G.’s man dates to the middle to late 1870s when the stick pin of fashion was based on naturalistic elements, such as shapes of flowers, and made from natural materials, such as shells.
In fact, the sitter in M.M.G’s portrait is wearing a cameo, which is carved out of mother of pearl and features what looks like a Classical Roman bust portrait. This is evidence of a sitting during the Classical Revival period, 1870-1880. I don’t put the portrait into the late 1890s because of the evidence of the fashion for mutton chops and the thinner collar. (Earlier than the 1870s, the coat would have featured dropping shoulders.)
I do not place the portrait into the late 1880s or 1890s because the “look” of that era was “dandified.” We would see more accessories, such as a pocket square, and a pearl or diamond stick pin.
The mutton chop said something. Sideburns grew bushy and the beard at the chin was shaved, retaining a dropping luxuriant mustache.
The mutton chop had its problems, too.
So dangerous were they on sports fields that college athletes were forbidden to sport them. The expression to “bust one’s chops” hearkens to the days when an opponent could grab your mutton chop and do some damage.
For this same reason you would think that military men of the late 1870s-1880s would shy away from this style of facial hair, but instead they were big wearers. To shave on the battlefield was a luxury, and the style was adopted by the upper ranks to honor the unshaven soldier, and made proper by Ole Burnsid of the Union Army.
Members of the middle to upper class of the late 1870s would have been able to “read” this portrait. They would think: The gent is young but intellectual (longer middle parted hair), his overgrown facial air points to a dominant male, he was upper middle class or better (black coat, black cravat, cameo stick pin, a fine white linen shirt with starched collar), and he appears to be well educated.
As to country of origin, something suggests American: perhaps the sober gaze and perhaps because of the classical cameo. We in the U.S. were big fans of the Classical Revival. Every small town bank building was remodeled to resemble the Parthenon in the 1870-80s. American men were thought to be serious, unlike the jovial British upper class.
The value of the portrait is negligible for two reasons. One, he is not a pretty young lady, and two, he is not an emperor, because of the upper middle class flavor of the classical cameo stick pin, affordable if you had some money. I would put the value at $800.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID 19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darling Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chao” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.