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Hawthorne's interest in portraiture

In her Portraits of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rita K. Gollin remarks upon Hawthorne's interest in portraiture, including daguerreotypes and photographs, and the role of portraits in The House of the Seven Gables.

If the miniature is associated with a leisured aristocracy that was dying out, the daguerreotypes in the novel are wholly products of a democratic present. The novel's young hero, Holgrave, is a daguerreotypist but also a wrietr who wants to tell the truth about the present and reveal the truth about the past. Through him, Hawthorne expressed his immediate knowledge of daguerreotypes and his reactions to them, as well as his own goals in this novel of sunshine and shadow, in which he felt free to "manage his atmopsherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture" (HSG p.1).

"I make pictures out of sunshine," Holgrave explains to Phoebe. Her reply is simplistic: "I don't much like pictures of that sort-they are so hard and stern; besides dodging dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether." Although she is right about the elusiveness of reflected images on a mirrored surface, Holgrave corrects her assumption that all daguerreotypes appear "unamiable." Most of his portraits look that way "because the individuals are so. There is a wonderful insight in heaven's broad and simple sunshine." He even argues that the daguerreotype is superior to a painting: "it actually brings out the secret character with a truth no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it. There is at lest no flattery in my humble line of art" (HSG p. 91).

As proof, he shows her a daguerreotype of a "hard, stern, relentless" face which she mistakes as his copy of an ancestral portrait of the family's stern progenitor, Colonel Pyncheon. Again Holgrave corrects her; it is a picture of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. The sun, however, has revealed that beneath his modern polish he has the same grasping character as his ancestor. Hawthorne might have been recalling his own unflattering Whipple daguerreotype as he had Holgrave say, "Look at that eye! Would youlike to be at its mercy? At that mouth! Could it ever smile?" (HSG p. 92). When near the end of the novel, Holgrave show Phoebe a second daguerreotype of the same man, she immediately understands the image: "This is death!" (HSG p. 302). She has learned that daguerreotypes tell no lies. (8) (courtesy of Northern Illinois University Press

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