Peculiar Paintings from Days Gone By

Peculiar Paintings from Days Gone By

Exploring historical homes fascinates me. Indeed, I can think of few things I enjoy more during my summer travels. During a tour of a historic home in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, the curator shared a fascinating account of a picture of a little girl in a blue dress on display in one of the bedrooms. I remember being completely enthralled, as was my dear daughter, who shares my passion for the discovery and exploration of all things from the days of old.

At sixteen, she is a multi-faceted creative: an alto saxophonist, a promising artist, and a writer (wish I could add aspiring, but for now let’s just go with reluctant). She’s my personal assistant this summer, and one of her recent tasks was to gather research material for this month’s blog post. What I’d hoped for was a few notes substantiating the curator’s claims: something I could fashion into my own words. What I received exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed reading it very much, and I hope you will too.

History, it’s accountings of the past, memories shared and recorded storytelling. Of course, like our own memories and our own folk tales, sometimes details can be switched, cut, exaggerated, or even completely added. We can’t blame historians. We’re all only human after all, even if it does mean that misinformation could spread to the masses, creating something that would make the truth seem a tad too odd for the time period.

One of the many ways we have recorded history is with art. It’s been around longer than the first written languages of human civilization. We have seen the advancements and influences of modern humans through these paintings. In the medieval age, the Church ruled the majority of everything, and that extended to the arts. The influences of studying the human as its own entity and how we as a people are unique, beautiful, and powerful didn’t come along until the Renaissance, where we see the masters of art emerge with stunning, almost photorealistic paintings of the human form. Their extensive study of human anatomy helped in capturing the realism, and that’s where our mystery of “Head Hunters” comes into play.

It is said that American folk artists would paint stock bodies in the winter, and when the weather warmed up they would go in search of clients who could pick out their body and have their head painted on it.

Convenient? Yes. True? Not exactly. Well, at least there are no accounts from contemporaneous artists or models about such encounters. In fact, if you were to take a look at any talented young artist’s work the symptoms of “head hunting” would show. This is largely due to the artist’s lack of proper training in anatomy, perspective, and even proportion, for these things weren’t as emphasized in art during that period as they were in the classical era. Apprenticeships and art schools weren’t as popular as they used to be, and therefore inexperienced artists were painting portraits of young women with malformed shoulders and girls with giraffe necks and impossibly long arms.


For editorial purposes only. Attributed to Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855)
For editorial purposes only. Attributed to Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855)
For editorial purposes only. Thomas Sully (1783-1872)
For editorial purposes only. Attributed to Joseph Goodhue Chandler (1813-1884)










To explain the dreadfully uncomfortable positions of these poor subjects, the myth of the painters in search of heads came to fruition. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We would never pay good money for an inexperienced artist to do our portraits now; it is almost always a bad idea.

So why not put our modern logic into the logic of our nineteenth-century peers? The issue is during that era, early America didn’t have the extreme influences in art that were prevalent for centuries across the great pond. European artists were trained and told to study, study, study. That simply wasn’t happening as much in our quickly growing, rapidly industrialized nation. Our intellectual revolution was in machines, not marble and frescos. As far as we know, these peculiar paintings might have been as good as it got for some of the wealthy patrons of the day.


Giveaway Time!

In March 2015, I wrote a blog post titled, Write What You Know, in which I spoke of my real-life experience with my dear daughter as the inspiration for Lady Elizabeth:  Everything Will Change Book One. In honor of her lovely contribution, I am giving away a signed copy of Lady Elizabeth to one lucky commenter.

A US mailing address is required to be eligible to receive the signed paperback. Therefore, one P. O. Dixon eBook is up for grabs internationally—winner’s choice.

Hurry! The giveaway contest ends at midnight EDST on Tuesday, August 1, 2017.



27 Responses to Peculiar Paintings from Days Gone By

  1. The art was uncomfortable to look at, and yes, the perspective is off. Never gave it much thought, when it came to that type of art. I just though it was the “style” at the time. Thank you for the chance to win 🙂
    jslbrown2009 at aol dot com

  2. This is all new information for me, Pam. Thanks for sharing your daughter’s research with us. The faces of the American paintings included in this post are very odd looking. It appears the heads of the child are too big compared to the body and the woman’s neck is longer than it should be.

  3. In the movie ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ it showed artist Johannes Vermeer using mannequins as stand-ins for his human subject. Whether this was a true account… unknown. I had not read the book so don’t know if that was from fact or was created for the story. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for the generous giveaway. Blessings on your writing success.

  4. I think I read somewhere, too, that until relatively recently, portrait artists portrayed children as “little adults” which seems to be an issue here. Don’t know if that was still occurring when these paintings were completed, though. Also, I’ve noticed, as you said, that America tended to have more “folk” painters than those in Europe, who had so many masters to choose from when learning their craft. I’ve always found it fascinating that the artist who taught Di Vinci required his artists to sketch bodies (yup, dead ones) to learn about proportion and anatomy. Anyhoo… ;->

    Thanks for the giveaway–I’d LOVE a signed copy of this book–this pairing is really one of my favorites.

    • It’s my pleasure. That’s such an interesting tidbit about Da Vinci’s teacher, Melanie.

      I’m so glad the series ranks among your favorites. Thanks for commenting for a chance to win a signed copy of Lady Elizabeth.

  5. Wow, those paintings are frightening! This was actually something that was touched on in one of my art classes, altho’ I hadn’t thought about it for years. I declare there is no place like Virginia for tracing American history, Williamsburg and the James River trail being my favourites. Altho’ I’ve read both books of this saga (as well as several of your other books), I do love books signed by the author. I have a few signed JAFFs but not this one. Many thanks for sharing these ,,, um … interesting photos and for your generous giveaway.

    • Interesting indeed. I really love that part of Virginia as well. Thanks for reading and enjoying my stories, and thanks for commenting for a chance to win the signed paperback.

  6. I am anxious to visit Williamsburg again (it has been many years) and see these paintings. Thank you for this fascinating information and also thank you for the fabulous giveaway. I have a daughter named Elizabeth and would love to win a copy of Lady Elizabeth. What a wonderful experience to have your creative daughter beside you this summer.

    • I’m so grateful for her willingness to learn about some of the ins and outs of my author business. It’s a real challenge. She’s so creative, and I’m so analytical. Plus, she’s headstrong. This project was ideally suited to her interests and talents. And timely. She just completed a series of private art lessons on depth and perspective. As for the painting of the girl in the blue dress we saw in Williamsburg, we found one on the internet that was close but we couldn’t agree it was the same one so we went with the pics above for reference purposes.

      It’s been a while since I visited Williamsburg as well. I’m hoping for another visit at some point during the next twelve months. Thanks so much for commenting for a chance to win a signed copy of Lady Elizabeth.

  7. Interesting post! I’ve never heard the rumors of artists “headhunting” subjects for their paintings.

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  8. That’s an interesting story, Pam. Head hunting doesn’t surprise me though, poor artists used to do a lot of strange things in order to find clients.
    Thanks for the giveaway. 🙂

  9. Thank you for the giveaway and sharing this post. I have not been to many historical place however one of my local libraries used to be in a historical mansion which I thought was really cool and added to the libraries ambiance but last year they closed that building and moved to a new modern building that is more handicap friendly and has more services offered.

  10. I haven’t read Lady Elizabeth yet! I wish there were more historical houses in my area. I grew up in a tiny pioneer town, but most of the old houses there aren’t more than 150 years old. I would love to visit places with even older houses!
    Thanks for the post!!

  11. Usually there is some truth in any rumor. There probably were a few artists that did “head hunting” most likely when dealing with the lower income masses. But I can also see how not having proper training would be the most prevalent reason for malformed humans in paintings.

    Your daughter has a nice style of writing. Hopefully she accepts and utilizes it. I would love to be able to write, but my gift seems to be proofreading.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • You’re welcome, Linda. Great points! Thanks for your kind words about my daughter’s writing. I love her voice. She often says she’d like to work from home like I do, and I always remind her that she already has the keys.

    • You’re welcome. I’d never heard about it either before visiting the historic home in VA and listening to the curator discuss it. It made so much sense at the time and explained so much. Imagine my disappointment when learning there’s no real proof of this claim. Thank you so much for commenting.

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