Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture

Daniel Huntington (1816-1906): The Atlantic Cable Projectors, 1895. Oil on canvas, 221 x 275 cm. New York State Museum, Albany

The portrait collection of the New York Chamber of Commerce, assembled over a two-hundred-year period, captured with aesthetic and symbolic power the giants of American business to become one of the most significant examples of institutional portraiture in the nation's history. 

Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture brings together approximately fifty of the finest of the collection’s three hundred portraits in an immersive Salon-style (floor-to-ceiling) installation evoking their original majestic setting in the Great Hall of the Chamber’s elaborate Beaux-Arts headquarters. Interpreting the collection in terms of its changing function and meaning within and beyond its institutional setting, the exhibition offers a historically contextualized and analytic "portrait" of how the genre was used by a wealthy and powerful group. The Chamber’s collection allowed the group to fashion an identity that promoted its corporate, civic, and ultimately ideological agendas, even as it reflected, in its evolving use, the successive concerns of the organization, its members, and the wider world they inhabited. These representations of civic leaders and leading members engaged the predicament of portraying power in a democracy, whose core rhetoric of egalitarianism would seem in fundamental conflict with the inherently aggrandizing act of commissioning, posing for, and collecting portraits. Americans’ shifting and sometimes ambivalent relationship to commerce situates these portraits, representations of the human face of business, at the critical intersection of enduring contests in American life—between self-interest and the greater good, and equality and the social hierarchies that wealth engenders.

Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture has been made possible by generous support from Judith McCartin Scheide and William H. Scheide, Class of 1936, sponsors of the spring 2013 exhibition program. Generous funds have also been provided by the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.