'Hidden Mother' exhibition on view at the Palmer Museum through April 26

January 13, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "Hidden Mother," an exhibit on view at the Palmer Museum of Art through April 26, presents a survey of the 19th-century child portrait photographs known by that name.

Emerging in recent years as popular collectibles, "hidden mother" images still remain largely unknown to photo experts and the general public alike. In introducing this vernacular form, "Hidden Mother" contributes to the expanding awareness of the historically pervasive role of artifice in the medium that “never lies,” while illuminating the powerful resonance that these obscure, 19th-century pictures hold for timeless concerns of motherhood.

Nineteenth-century portrait photographers turned to a number of different devices — from pedestals to pincer-like braces — to stabilize the body for the long exposures required to make a portrait. But these methods often were not suitable for the small, unruly body of a child. Instead, the photographer enlisted the mother, who, hidden by studio props, supported or soothed her offspring. These photographs range from the comic, almost slapstick, barring of the mother to more macabre examples of her literal erasure. A practical strategy deployed by the photographer unintentionally yielded an evocative representation of the mother in absentia. Never meant to be seen, her presence nonetheless haunts these images.

"Hidden Mother" affords a comprehensive overview of this fascinating practice as it appears in a range of early photographic media, including tintypes, cartes-de-visite, cabinet cards and other forms of paper printing. Many of the photographs on view are drawn from the private collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr. The exhibition was curated by Laura Larson.

Exhibition Related Events:

Joyce Robinson, curator, will present a gallery talk titled "Hidden Mother" at 12:10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20.

Laura Larson, associate professor of art, Ohio University, and curator of the "Hidden Mother" exhibition, will present a lecture titled "Hidden Mother" at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 2. Larson will discuss the 19th-century photographic phenomenon of the “hidden mother.” Larson will contextualize this historic phenomenon by discussing timeless concerns of motherhood, which she began to experience firsthand as she concurrently curated this exhibition and adopted her daughter.

Dana Carlisle Kletchka, curator of education, will present a gallery talk titled "Hidden Mother" at 12:10 p.m. Friday, April 3.

Joyce Robinson, curator, will present the one-day Paper Views exhibition titled "Not-so-Hidden Mothers … and Children" in the Drs. Albert and Lorraine Kligman Print and Drawing Study Room from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, April 24, and will lead a gallery conversation at 1 p.m.

The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State is located on Curtin Road and admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4:00 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays. A greeter will be available in the lobby to direct visitors to the appropriate gallery for all noontime events. 

  • Unknown photographer, tintype, 1860s–70s. Collection of Laura Larson.
    IMAGE: Collection of Laura Larson.
  • Unknown photographer, tintype with hand coloring, 1860s–70s. Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.
    IMAGE: Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.
  • Unknown photographer, carte-de-visite, 1866. Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.
    IMAGE: Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.
  • Unknown photographer, c. 1870, tintype, 99.69.
    IMAGE: Gift of Susan Herzig and Paul Hertzmann, Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc., San Francisco.
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Last Updated January 27, 2015