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Guide to the New-York Historical Society
Theatrical Portrait Collection
circa 1800-1985 (bulk, 1850-1920)

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Rick Hunter, March 2003; migrated to ArchivesSpace by Joseph Ditta, May 2020.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 30, 2020
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

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.


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