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Striking Historical Portraits

Halloween season provides a fun opportunity to consider some of the old portraits at the Madison Historical Society’s Allis-Bushnell House on the Boston Post Road. Are those eyes really following you?

Well, no — not even on Halloween. Scientists tell us that the he’s-staring-at-me effect is just an optical illusion. Because the painted-in perspective and shadows don’t change when viewed from different angles, your brain interprets the unchanging view as an indication the eyes are following you. Got that?

Regardless of the science, some of the portraits in the society’s collection are striking. Some even have some mystery about them. Our portrait of Jehiel Meigs (1743-1776), for instance, shows a strong, distinctive face with deep blue eyes that lock onto your own. Yet, this man may not be Jehiel at all. The person who sat for this portrait seems to be older than 33, which is the age Jehiel was at his death–and the style of his clothing is of a later era than was popular in 1776. This man may instead be Ohio Governor and U.S. Postmaster General Return Jonathan Meigs the second, who lived from 1764 to 1825.

Then, we have a husband-and-wife team who never seem to take their eyes off you. Thomas Scranton married Betsey Parmalee in 1811 and built a house on the Post Road in Madison. Now they adorn each side of an archway leading to the front door of the Allis-Bushnell House, carefully watching visitors to ensure, perhaps, that they take no keepsakes other than fond memories.

Up in the attic of the Allis-Bushnell House is an image of one of the stranger characters that routinely visited Madison in the late 19th century: the storied Leatherman (ca. 1839-1889). A vagabond famous for his handmade leather suit of clothes, he walked a rigid circuit between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, all year round, from roughly 1856 to 1889. Now he kindly stares out of the society’s 1898 watercolor by F. M. King.

One painting in the Blue Room, Caroline and George Munger as children, is so sensitively rendered that its two sets of sad eyes seem to actually speak to us still. In paintings of this era, symbols such as downturned flowers (especially roses) often symbolize that a death has occurred. In paintings with children, a broken toy suggests a broken childhood or a child who has died. Curiously, however, both of these children are known to have lived to adulthood. MHS curator Tricia Royston speculates that the painting may be a memorial to the mother of the children. Amy Munger died a month after her baby George was born.

As a photographer, I can assure you that none of the eyes in these portraits actually move; their stories, however, often move our hearts and stir our souls. Happy Halloween!

These portraits and many more appear on the Madison Historical Society’s Flickr page. Learn more detail about the Munger painting at https://flic.kr/p/JVkvBA.