by Richard H. Saunders. University Press of New England, September 2016. 207 p. ill. ISBN 9781611688924 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed November 2016
Richard H. Saunders, professor of art history and director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, has been researching the ideas for American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity on and off for nearly two decades, studying how portraits fit into the American narrative. The result is an engaging, light history of the way the United States has embraced images of its people and how these have helped define a national identity.
The book provides a survey of the concepts of portraiture, and incorporates the perspectives of the artist, the sitter, and the viewer. Saunders allows that the definition of “portrait” itself is contentious, but the scope of this book is limited to images produced in or depicting people of the United States. He tackles these depictions thematically, starting with a chapter entitled “The Rich” and those who could afford to commission their portraits, thereby reinforcing their status in society. Other chapters examine fame, propaganda, ritual, and memory. Saunders touches on all time periods within these themes, from the seventeenth century until the present. Covering more than 400 years of American portraiture in less than 200 pages, the author acknowledges that the book’s analysis rarely goes below the surface. Sub-sections for major topics such as “The Rise of Celebrity,” “Satire and Caricature,” or “Personal Heroes” are given a brief overview each, leaving further exploration to the reader.
Unfortunately, to exemplify the themes and time periods, the artists and subjects of the illustrations chosen are overwhelmingly white, with few exceptions including Americans of color. Despite this, the book includes a large and varied selection of images. These show the ubiquity of portraiture in our lives, from paintings in courthouses and living rooms, to the decorative arts, like portraits on water pitchers and clocks, to utilitarian portraits used for passports and “Wanted” posters. Surprisingly, it mentions the most recent addition --the selfie--in only in a brief caption.
American Faces is written for a broad audience and mostly free of art historical jargon, so it would be appropriate for both popular and research collections. It is well illustrated, with large colorful reproductions or graphs on every page spread. Many of the illustrations are accompanied by detailed captions that set the particular picture into its larger historical context. The author’s bibliography is thorough and the book is indexed. It is a sturdy hardback with glossy pages, and available as well as an e-book format (not consulted for review).