New-York Historical Society theatrical portrait collection
Language of Materials
The Theatrical Portrait Collection is an amalgam of portraits, mainly photographic, of an array of theatrical performers in a broad sense, encompassing performers from dance, vaudeville, opera, and music. Materials include various photographic techniques and formats, such as albumen prints, cabinet photographs, cartes de visite, and film stills, as well as clippings and illustrations. Principally represented are actors and actresses of the stage and, to a lesser extent, silent film, from the latter half of the nineteenth century through the first two decades of the twentieth century. These portraits provide a comprehensive pictorial record of this period in the history of the New York stage, with all the major performers represented in many of the roles and costumes that made them famous, including the Barrymores, the Booths, the Davenports, Augustin Daly's company, Lillie Langtry, Jenny Lind, and Lillian Russell, among many others. The file also includes photographs of theatrical productions, Gilbert and Sullivan, and silent film productions. A set of Capezio dance portraits provides a glimpse into the full array of performers in the mid-1940s from the worlds of ballet, theatre, and modern avant-garde dance. Also included are photographs taken of theatrical portraits distributed by the firm of Thomas Houseworth & Co.
The Theatrical Portrait Collection represents an era of collecting that has largely disappeared. Institutions such as the New-York Historical Society are the beneficiaries of a fashionable recreational hobby that built reputations and filled auction rooms with enthusiastic buyers. When the stage was the most popular form of entertainment throughout the nation, the hobby of collecting photographic portraits of actors blossomed. To feed this growing interest, many New York photographers, particularly the Sarony, Falk, and Mora studios, began to specialize in theatrical portraits. Houseworth & Company of San Francisco was another nationally known studio that specialized in this market, selling "Houseworth's Celebrities," as their portraits of theatre stars were known, to collectors by mail order.
New York resident Gertrude Bushfield Weed (1877–1927) and her husband, Raphael (1873–1931), were two such avid theatre collectors. They eventually amassed over 2,000 images acquired from mail-order establishments, theatrical acquaintances, and auction houses, where they purchased other significant collectors' holdings. Raphael Weed gave the "Gertrude Bushfield Weed Collection of Theatrical Portraits (Players of the New-York Stage)" to the New-York Historical Society after his wife's death, and those carefully labeled images form the backbone of the Theatrical Portrait Collection.
At the New-York Historical Society, the Weed collection was enhanced by theatrical portraits donated by others, including George C. D. Odell (1866–1949). Odell's portraits date from the 1870s and 1890s, and were used to illustrate his fifteen-volume Annals of the New York Stage (New York: 1927–49), describing performances and performers in New York from 1798 through 1894. In addition to the photos, Odell's volumes relied heavily on newspaper articles and other primary sources and were, for many years, the definitive history of the early New York theatre scene.
Another donor, Harold Seton (1883–1951), a noted writer on theatre history, gave the New-York Historical Society in the late 1920s and early 1930s approximately 350 individual theatrical portraits. Included in that number were photographs originally collected by Mrs. Charles B. Hillhouse in 1878 and subsequently acquired by Seton. In addition, in 1935 he gave a group of fifty "old flashlight group photos of New York stage plays" and stills of silent picture stars.
Approximately 400 portraits dating from the 1860s to the 1890s were donated in 1929 by Robert Goelet (1880–1966). Goelet had acquired pictures collected by Joseph Norton Ireland (1817–1898), whose Records of the New York Stage from 1750 to 1860 (New York: 1866–67) was the definitive history of the theatre until the publication of Odell's Annals.
The remainder of the Theatrical Portrait Collection consists of various donations, often covering the same time period. Many portraits in the collection were formerly owned by singer Emma Thursby (1845–1931) and were given to the New-York Historical Society by her sister, Ina. They are mainly images of people with whom Thursby worked; her personal and family photographs can be found in the Print Room's Emma Cecilia Thursby Photograph Collection (PR 126). Gifts of the devoted collector E. B. Child (1846–1946) document a number of Gilbert and Sullivan productions in which Child appeared as an amateur performer; his acting career culminated in his 1896 performance as Bunthorn in "Patience" at the Metropolitan Opera House. During his lifetime, Child became a first-nighter at practically every opening on or off Broadway. He also gave the New-York Historical Society his collection of silent film movie stills.
A notable group of portraits of a single performer are those of Jenny Lind, which were given by Leonidas Westervelt (1875–1952), an American playwright and renowned collector of theatrical books and manuscripts. The remainder of his Jenny Lind material, as well as his collection of circus material, is available in the New-York Historical Society's Library and in the Print Room's Cased Image File (PR 012).
The collection is organized in five series:
- Series I
- Individuals, undated
- Series II
- Groups, circa 1852-1942, undated
- Series III
- Unidentified, undated
- Series IV
- Productions, 1855-1907, undated
- Series V
- Capezio Dance Portraits, circa 1943
Scope and Contents
The Theatrical Portrait Collection spans the period from the early nineteenth century to the 1980s, but consists primarily of portraits dating from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The collection is arranged in five series: Individual Portraits, Group Portraits, Unidentified Portraits, Productions, and Capezio Dance Portraits. Where the portraits have been further subdivided by size, the small format images are housed in boxes and the medium and large format images are housed in flat file drawers.
Series I. Individuals is arranged in three subseries: Small Format, Medium Format, and Large Format portraits. In the small format, sitters with more than five images have their own folders and are so listed in the finding aid; a parenthetical number following a name refers to the number of folders for any individual or surname. The remaining small format sitters are filed in the alphabetical "miscellaneous" folders. Every sitter included in the medium and large formats is listed in the finding aid; a number in parentheses after a name refers to the number of images available. Dates are not included for the small portraits but are given for the medium and large portraits when available. Names have not been cross-referenced, so researchers should check each size for a particular artist or search the finding aid electronically.
This portion of the collection consists of portraits of individuals who worked in a theatrical context, using a broad definition of the term "theatrical" to cover many performers and types of performance. The portraits range from sideshow and vaudeville entertainers, such as Tom Thumb and Eugen Sandow, to opera singers such as Geraldine Farrar, Emma Albani, Enrico Caruso, and Nellie Melba; from minstrels such as Sam Devere the Whistlin' Coon to African-American entertainers such as Cool Burgess; from dancers such as Anna Pavlova and Della Fox to musicians such as Ole Bull and conductor Walter Damrosch. However, portraits are arranged alphabetically by sitter and are not organized by subject.
The bulk of the collection is held in the first subseries: portraits of actors and actresses from the nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth century, primarily in the form of cabinet cards of both large and intermediate size, and the smaller cartes de visite. Beyond the value of the images of the actors or actresses themselves, the photographs are interesting for what they show of the history of theatrical costumes during this period. Many of the artists are shown in theatrical dress from their most famous stage roles but also appear in their street clothing, allowing for an interesting record of changes in fashion.
Many important acting families of New York are found throughout the Theatrical Portrait Collection, notably the Davenports, the Wallacks, the Booths, and the Drews, including the grandchildren of the illustrious Mrs. John Drew, the Barrymore triumvirate of Ethel, John, and Lionel. The members of Augustin Daly's Company are well represented, including Daly himself, along with actors of his company including Ada Rehan, Mrs. George Gould, Linda Dietz, and Kate Claxton, among others.
Actors who have made New York history are also well represented. For example, there are many portraits of both British actor William Charles Macready and his American counterpart Edwin Forrest, whose stage rivalry was the spark that ignited the Astor Place Riots of May 1849. Many of the actors from the December 5, 1876, production of "The Two Orphans," headed by Kate Claxton of the Union Square Theatre Co. and playing at the Brooklyn Theatre, are in the file. During the last scene of that production, a fire tore through the building and killed 280 people, including actor Harry S. Murdoch, whose portrait is included in the collection. Gertrude Weed specifically collected the photos of the members of the cast from this tragic evening. One significant single image in the Theatrical Portrait Collection is a photograph of Mark Twain shaking hands with John T. Raymond, whose most famous role was in Twain's play "The Gilded Age."
Filed throughout this series are portraits of many silent movie stars that document the early years of the film industry.
The final folder of small format portraits holds composite photographs of celebrity portraits. There are eleven cabinet card prints holding composites of cabinet size theatrical portraits offered for sale by Houseworth & Company in San Francisco. The portraits, which were meant to be ordered by Houseworth's inventory number and sent out through the mail, include multiple images of Maud Granger, Emily Rigl, Mabel Santley, and Julia Wilson, among others. These cards illustrate one way theatrical portraits were marketed to collectors, and as such represent one source of the type of photographs that populate the Theatrical Portrait Collection. Three miscellaneous sheets of composite photographs are also found here; their purpose is not clear, and most of the actresses are not identified.
Series II. Groups is divided into Medium Format and Large Formats portraits, and arranged thereunder by Music or Theatre. The group photographs in the small format are either in Series III or filed under a specific production in Series IV.
An amateur theatre group, the Bronx Opera Club, is represented for the years 1928 to 1932 in posed shots with the entire company in costume. The Weber and Fields Company has three medium-format portraits showing their entire company, including Lillian Russell. The Callender Minstrel Festival of 1883 is represented by a poster showing a portrait of every performer. This San Francisco festival was notable for the significant number of popular African-American performers appearing in one place, and did not include a single white entertainer performing in black face, the more familiar form of minstrelsy at that time.
Series III. Unidentified is divided into Small Format and Medium Format portraits, and arranged thereunder by Children, Groups, Men, and Women. The portraits date from the mid-nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century. The series includes people who are obviously performers but whose names are absent or indecipherable.
Series IV. Productions is comprised of photographs of theatrical productions and movie stills. It is arranged in three subseries: Small Format, Medium Format, and Large Format images, and grouped thereunder by Theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Motion Pictures.
The theatrical photographs are predominantly from the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. Several Gilbert and Sullivan productions are documented, notably the 1893 New York stage productions of "The Mikado" and "Patience," and the 1939 movie production of "The Mikado" starring Kenny Baker. In addition, many individual actors dressed for a Gilbert and Sullivan production, such as Fritzi Scheff from a scene in "The Mikado," can be found in Series I.
The film stills are from the silent era of moving pictures, with the exception of "Knickerbocker Holiday" and Walt Disney's "Johnny Tremain." A majority of the stills are from films with American history themes, such as two pictures set in the colonial era, "Eve of the Revolution" and "Gateway to the West." There are also films fictionally chronicling the westward migration in the nineteenth century, including "The Golden Trail."
The last file in the series holds mostly unidentified and early film stills. Within the folder is a set of snapshots described as having been taken from an apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan of a film shoot on the roof of a garage on West 56th Street. The unidentified film was made in the 1912–1916 period and featured Mary Pickford with a basket of wash and a laundry line.
Series V. Capezio Dance Portraits are eighty-nine 3 x 5-inch cards, donated by Capezio Dance-Footwear in 1943, which are reproductions of photographs. Most were inscribed for Capezio by the subjects, and were used by the company for promotional purposes. The portraits provide a comprehensive look at the history of dance in the mid-1940s from ballet to theatre to modern avant-garde performances.
Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit www.nyhistory.org/library/visit.
Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.
Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, email@example.com. Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.
Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit: https://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions
The collection should be cited as: Theatrical Portrait Collection, PR-104, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society.
Location of Materials
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Composed of gifts from various donors from the 1910s onward, including Gertrude and Raphael Weed, George C. D. Odell, Harold Seton, Ina Thursby, Robert Goelet, E. B. Child, Leonidas Westervelt, Capezio Dance-Footwear, and the La Porte County Historical Society Museum (accession no. PPAC.2022.020).
About this Guide
Rick Hunter processed this collection in March 2003. Archivist Joseph Ditta migrated Hunter's finding aid from a WORD document to ArchivesSpace in May 2020, and updated the whole to reflect an addition to the collection in May 2022.