Friday, August 14, 2009

Headless Bodies: Myth or Fiction?

In the more than 25 years of doing folk art exhibitions and giving tours to the public, I can attest that there is one “fact” that nearly everyone believes about folk art: folk portrait painters in the early and mid- 1800s painted the bodies in the winter and traveled around in the summer offering to paint one’s head in a body of one’s choosing. In fact, every time I take a tour group through the folk art galleries there is someone who will say, “Oh, those are the portraits where they painted the bodies in the winter…” How this iron-clad association came to be, I have no idea. It has not appeared in any published sources that I know of, even the popular magazines or newspapers that write about folk art.

So it will probably come as no surprise to you that it is patently untrue. Not that I can prove it to be false, but it stands to reason that if this was a wide-spread practice we would have found some headless bodies by now. Maybe stored away in some attic. Or in an artist’s estate. Or a little New England historical society collection (they save everything). Or at least written about in some diary or newspaper account from the 1830s or 1840s. But there is nothing. Dead silence on this issue.

What we do have, by contrast, is heads without bodies. Doesn’t that make more sense? People were particular about their likenesses. Before photography was invented in 1839 the portrait you had painted may well have been the only likeness of you taken in your lifetime. Often, artists would start with the head, sometimes on the back of a canvas to practice. Sometimes, the picture is left unfinished for some unknown reason, and the head is left to float forever on the blank canvas. It would be pretty inconvenient – and an inefficient way of doing business – to travel the highways and byways with a load of headless bodies on canvas, hoping that you can somehow sell them all on your travels.

I suspect that the reason this myth came to be is the simple visual fact that many folk portraitists utilized stock poses and backgrounds to speed production of their work. The portraits shown here, by Samuel Miller, illustrate this practice. There is a certain sameness to how people presented themselves, and how they dressed, and how their interiors looked, that made this way of doing portraiture acceptable in many circumstances. But that’s still a far cry from peddling headless bodies.


  1. One of the many things I remember from your class (which was one of my favorites). I have even nicely informed some of those little historical society ladies that the info they were telling might not be correct. But it is so hard to break away from those myths.

  2. So true. People get so invested in what they believe. As long as those little historical society ladies take good care of this stuff and preserve it for the next generation, I guess we shouldn't complain. Thnanks, Illene!


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