Treasures from the Vault: Raphael Strauss

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

As most museums do, FWMoA has a database that correlates all of the artwork information, from paintings to prints to pottery, in our permanent collection. We hold thousands of objects in trust for the public, so we never have our full collection on display at one time. Therefore, to celebrate No-Shave November, I popped in the query #beard, just to see what the database would turn up, and was not disappointed.

Raphael Strauss, American, 1830-1901. Portrait of a Man. Oil on canvas, 1879. Theodore F. Thieme Collection, 1922.40. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Along with multiple artworks that included bears, I stumbled upon this fine fellow. An unknown man, this portrait was painted by 19th century artist Raphael Strauss. A painter of portraits, miniatures, and landscapes, he emigrated from Germany with his wife in 1857 or 1858 to Cincinnati, Ohio. Upon his arrival, he opened a photography studio on the corner of John St. and Everett St. where he worked as a portraitist and tinter of photographs, or someone who hand colors photographs. In fact, he entered a partnership with William Southgate Porter during the Civil War. Examine the portrait above, does it look like a photograph? At first glance, the bland greenish-grey background is suggestive of a portrait backdrop, and its discoloration is reminiscent of many old photographs that were exposed to light or otherwise improperly conserved. The detail is precise; you can feel the texture on the thick, coarse beard and clearly see the slightly rumpled undershirt. The man appears to sit, and even his lack of toothy smile recalls old photographs where the subject was told to maintain a blank stare. Despite these indicators, this portrait of an unknown man is a painting. Admired for his attention to detail, Strauss’ contemporaries noted the likeness his paintings bore to the expensive photography studio sittings and lauded him for his technique.

Take a moment to examine our finely bearded fellow. Completed in 1879, many artists were favoring the Impressionist style of painting en plein air, with a focus on vibrant colors, playing with light, and capturing the essence of a person or landscape instead of its precise details. The advent of the camera, and its ability to capture an image as is, inspired many artists to work more abstractly and focus on other elements besides the realistic portrayal of a scene. But, not Strauss. Despite his time as an itinerant portrait painter in Kentucky, where he could have taken advantage of the frontier landscape, his portraits exude a stark and exact formality. All of his portraits, six of which are owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum, are exact likenesses of his sitters. Interestingly, children’s portraits, while maintaining their photographic accuracy, include landscaped backgrounds; perhaps as a way to capture the lighthearted spirit of youth, or simply an easier way to keep them occupied while he sketched or painted. The portraits of adults recall the practice of miniatures or cameos with their circular frames and attention to physical details. Historically, miniatures were commissioned by royals or wealthy families to trade with possible arranged spouses. Often, these portraits were painted to show the sitter in a favorable light and glaze over any imperfections, like a crooked nose or oversized ears. Since this particular sitter is unknown it is not possible to determine if it is a true likeness, or if Strauss took some liberties to satisfy his client. What do you think? Just by looking at the sitter, does he appear to be well-proportioned or are any physical characteristics slightly off that may indicate a nicer touch? As Strauss was celebrated for his precise likenesses by his contemporaries, do you think he would permit any “fudging” of some physical details to appease a client? Would a client looking for a painter to show them in a more favorable light seek Strauss out if they knew his style?

In Cincinnati society, his Pike studio building became a local salon, or gathering place for art lovers, and he was the Vice President of the Cincinnati Art Club. His work was shown in the 1863 Western Sanitary Fair, the Cincinnati Association Artists exhibition in 1866-1867, the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition in 1871 and 1873, and, in 1897, his portrait entitled Youthful Mendicant was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. Fun Fact: You may be familiar with his son! Joseph B. Strauss was the civil engineer who constructed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.

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