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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Husbands and Wives

Photographic Portraits from 19th Century Australia

Previous exhibition from Thursday 6 May 2010 until Sunday 11 July 2010

'I have just been to my dressing case to take a peep at you. I wish, my darling, beautiful as your picture is, that I had something still more dear to kiss and look at than that cold still likeness.' Mary Bolton 1857.

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and his wife Theresa, c. 1847 an unknown artist
Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and his wife Theresa, c. 1847 an unknown artist

Portraiture was the mainstay of the practice of many artists working in Australia during the first decades of the nineteenth century. A growing population, increasing prosperity and the developing confidence of the Australian colonies fuelled demand for art and the commissioning of portraits became the way by which colonists marked their social positions and family connections. Artists thrived, creating portraits in a variety of styles and for a variety of purposes. From the painted portraits made for proud display in fine homes to the informal and affectionate portraits of intimate scale - watercolours, miniatures, silhouettes and drawings - intended as personal mementoes of loved ones and likenesses to send 'Home'. But the popularity of drawn or painted portraits as personal tokens of status and sentiment diminished with the arrival of photography in Australia in the early 1840s. Whereas the first experiments in photography lent themselves only to the depiction of dead specimens or objects arranged in still life, the daguerreotype - the first practical form of photograph - caught attention as a means by which people could see themselves in stark and startling detail. The daguerreotype initiated a revolution in portraiture, the first of many technical developments which, by the 1860s, had made portraits things acquirable by everyone.

Daguerreotypes appealed as novelties, seemingly miraculous for the way they produced, as if by some sort of alchemy, images of alarming accuracy and detail from base elements such as silver, mercury and sunlight. By the reasoning of the times, these were 'truer' likenesses uncompromised by the artifice or fakery of painting: not portraits that were made or created, but 'specimens' which had been 'captured' or 'taken'. In addition to their novelty value, daguerreotypes had the appeal of being slightly more affordable than painted miniatures.

To have a photograph taken was a slow and special and precious process, and a process that people reserved for the preservation of equally precious events. Consequently, many of the earliest surviving Australian photos are portraits as it was with portraits that people typically marked a change in status via events such as marriages or engagements. Portraits had a part to play too in documenting desire and longing, in celebrating love or passion, and in marking family connections. Embedded in these beguiling and intriguing objects are the individual stories of those whose lives reveal much about the conditions applying to marriage and family in the second half of nineteenth century. Husbands & Wives portraits presents a glimpse at these private lives while at the same time traces the impact of photography on the practice of portraiture in Australia.

18 portraits

1Arthur Streeton, Nora Streeton (nee Clench) and Pat, the dog, c. 1909 H. Walter Barnett. 2MacKenzie family silhouette, 1846 Samuel Metford. 3Mr Mortimer Lewis, c. 1828 an unknown artist. 4Mrs Elizabeth Lewis, c. 1830 an unknown artist. 5Martha Sarah Butler, c. 1845 Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. 6Edward Paine Butler, c. 1845 Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.

Related people

Joanna Gilmour (curator)

Related information

Sir William Charles Windeyer, 1892 Tom Roberts
Sir William Charles Windeyer, 1892 Tom Roberts
Sir William Charles Windeyer, 1892 Tom Roberts
Sir William Charles Windeyer, 1892 Tom Roberts

Private virtues public lives

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour, 2010

Family affections are preserved in a fine selection of intimate portraits.

Self portrait, c. 1849 Charles Rodius
Self portrait, c. 1849 Charles Rodius
Self portrait, c. 1849 Charles Rodius
Self portrait, c. 1849 Charles Rodius

Elegance in exile

Portrait drawings from colonial Australia

Previous exhibition, 2012

Elegance in exile is an exhibition surveying the work of Richard Read senior, Thomas Bock, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and Charles Rodius: four artists who, though exiled to Australia as convicts, created many of the most significant and elegant portraits of the colonial period.

Henry Lawson, c. 1919 Lionel Lindsay
Henry Lawson, c. 1919 Lionel Lindsay
Henry Lawson, c. 1919 Lionel Lindsay
Henry Lawson, c. 1919 Lionel Lindsay

Jo's mo show

(with beards)

Previous exhibition, 2011

This exhibition illustrates changes in beards, moustaches and sideburns from the 1780s to the 1980s.

Cate Blanchett, 2006 by Martin Schoeller
Cate Blanchett, 2006 by Martin Schoeller
Cate Blanchett, 2006 by Martin Schoeller
Cate Blanchett, 2006 by Martin Schoeller

Martin Schoeller

Close up

Previous exhibition, 2010

German-born American photographer Martin Schoeller's first exhibition in Australia presents compelling large-scale portraits. The exhibition explores human identity through photographs of individuals accustomed and unaccustomed to the spotlight.

We would like to thank our partners.
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Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia


Phone +61 2 6102 7000
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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.