- Paintbrush for Hire: The Travels of James and Emma Cameron, 1840–1900 by Frederick C. Moffatt
Paintbrush for Hire: The Travels of James and Emma Cameron, 1840–1900 is not, primarily, a study of paintings. It does, of course, focus on a specific artist, James Cameron, who was born in Scotland and migrated to Philadelphia (likely in 1833), after which he got his start as an itinerant painter (by 1839) and subsequently married Emma S. Alcock (in 1844). The book illuminates how James made a living by fielding requests for portraits and landscape scenes, particularly in Tennessee. His extant paintings (of which there are fewer than twenty) include the ominously envisioned Avalanche Lake (circa 1854), a [End Page 689] stirring site in the Adirondack Mountains, and the tranquil Belle Isle from Lyon's View I (1856), a popular lookout spot along the Tennessee River near Knoxville. But Frederick C. Moffatt does not make the paintings his focus. Instead, he seeks to write "a travel narrative and a biography" of James and Emma Cameron (p. 15). Each chapter features a new location, as the book moves chronologically from the 1840s to the 1880s, following the Camerons on their dizzying itinerary: Italy; Washington, D.C.; upstate New York; Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee; Augusta, Georgia; Mississippi and the Deep South; and, after the Civil War, Maine and California. What emerges is a textured (though largely descriptive) account of their journey.
Antebellum itinerant image-makers have attracted a steady stream of scholarship in recent decades. David Jaffee has revealed how provincial painters catalyzed the appeal for portraits in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century North. Many scholars, including Alan Trachtenberg, have highlighted the rise of itinerant daguerreotypists. Paintbrush for Hire adds to this scholarship with its close attention to one artist. Though sometimes mired in minutiae, the book uses diaries and letters to illuminate the business of portraiture, the Camerons' daily lives, and the social networks in which they were immersed. Moffatt delves into relations between James and his patrons, such as Colonel James A. Whiteside of Chattanooga, whom James pictured in Colonel and Mrs. James A. Whiteside, Son Charles and Servants (1858), a portrait of a group situated on a balcony overlooking Chattanooga. Further, Moffatt brings the artistic and intellectual circles of the Camerons to life. During their three-year sojourn in Italy in the 1840s, for instance, Emma and James mingled with such luminaries as transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and sculptor Hiram Powers. They took walks and saw art exhibitions with Fuller. After James's return to America, he continued to correspond with Powers, even discussing ways to publicize Powers's The Greek Slave. Moffatt shows that itinerancy did not mean isolation.
The analysis of the Camerons' encounters with slavery is where this dual biography falters. Like many outsiders traveling in the antebellum South, Emma and James were struck by the racial dynamics of the region. Emma was startled by how white southerners "seem to speak and act before [enslaved people], as though they were both deaf and blind!" (p. 115). But she also divulged that she felt "as if my hands were dirty" after touching a black person (p. 100). Moffatt frequently quotes the Camerons discussing bondage at considerable length, but too often he leaves the language underanalyzed, as in the case of a half-page-long passage in which Emma recounts the death of an enslaved waiter named Henry, who worked at a Nashville hotel. How, one wonders, did encounters with bondage shape James's portrayal of African Americans, such as the black subjects in Colonel and Mrs. James A. Whiteside? In this context, Moffatt's language choices are troubling. He strangely uses the term Negro instead of African American on multiple occasions, giving this reader pause. A more thoughtful analysis of slavery and race would have made this book far more rewarding. [End Page 690]