The Image Pedlar, ca.1844
by Francis Willam Edmonds (American painter, 1806-1863)
A man balances a tray of plaster-like images on his head while extending an image out toward a woman who is examining it. Other people are there, adults and children, apparently the rest of the family, all of them inside a large room with sparsely decorated plastered walls. A musket and powder horn hang on the wall, over a map of some indistinct territory; on another wall hangs a clock with Roman numerals. The people are either watching and listening to the man and his demonstration, or attending to other images that are either on display or peeking out from under a basket cloth.
A peddler of images has made his way into someone’s home, and his customers appear to be a family made up of a father and mother and their three children, but there are other adults in the room too who may or may not be related. An older gentleman, because of his more casual attire – long robe and slippers – and appearing to be instructing the oldest of the children – a boy of about seven or eight, is most likely the grandfather and, from his likeness to the younger man of the house, quite possibly the father of the father. The older woman, however, may or may not be the grandmother. Her placement there suggests that she might be, but her face resembles more the juxtaposed plaster bust of Washington than of anyone else present, and the basket of apples at her side might mean that she too was peddling, apples that is, and her look of wary examination of the image before her might be more out of disappointment over lost sales (their money going to images, not apples) than of curiosity. The woman standing closest to the peddler, too intimately close to be Mother although she is holding the baby, is most likely either a wet nurse or nanny. Mother is wisely quiet in the background, facing the peddler but while washing dishes. Her attention may be focused more on the interaction between the peddler and the nanny – a facial resemblance here too – perhaps her unmarried sister? Father, a not too old man himself, perhaps thirty, is the next farthest from the action, sitting on a table edge and seemingly resigned (but amusingly so) to the fact that he is going to be buying several images for his up to this point uncluttered house, while Grandfather, the young flirtatious nanny, and older woman decide all the selections.
This cartoon was modeled on what was by then a familiar motif during the early to mid-1800’s, that of a peddler (“pedlar”) hauling or exhibiting his wares. By this time in our young nation’s history – the 1840’s – the last few Revolutionary War veterans were passing away and the necessities of life in those days had become the relics and heroes of the more modern times of the well established yet still growing republic. The bust of Washington, the “father of our country,” the musket and powder horn hanging on the wall, probably never touched again since the first day they were mounted there, remind the family in the picture and the painting’s viewer of our struggle for survival and independence. The grandfather seems to be recalling these tales for the oldest boy while the boy sports a drum on his side and a ramrod held over his shoulder like a rifle, too obvious symbols of the conflicts both significant and not so much so that had already been fought and, for the viewer, with a closer look at the somber boy’s face, of the huge and tragic war that was less than 20 years away that could very well claim that boy’s life or at least limbs, although this was unbeknownst to the artist. The clock on the wall symbolizes time, its passing across the family and its three generations within this home, and its march across the country outside: politically, militarily, and here more specific, economically.
On a more positive note, the couple that is central to the painting, the peddler and the (assumed) nanny, symbolize the promise of love and prosperity. The foot-loose yet not altogether carefree peddler (he does have a job to do and most likely an investment in his wares from which he hopes to profit) faces the prospect of domestication with a wife, children, and home of his own some day, all of the pros and the cons that such a life of settlement will bring to him, as it had already and would continue to have on his country. Smiles all around (feel the love!) suggests here a preference for the domestication of American culture. Edmonds is saying that business is a good thing, is progress, and even though (like the old woman) we might want to critically ponder the virtue of these new ideas, the future is coming, the future is here; embrace it.
The development of commerce and how it would evolve in this country from a network of survival to the impulsiveness of consumption, i.e., commercialism, is a story with plenty of goods and bads, full of both heroes and demons. In this painting, everything suggests a positive trend: the young father in shirt sleeves and vest, able to take a break from what seems to be at worst a desk job; prosperity enough to afford a nice house with big, airy windows and to support at least extended guests if not the permanent residency of the preceding generation, and this is heralded in by the growing influence (if not dominance) of women as the decision makers in the home.
Enough of the American literature of this time (e.g., The Sut Lovingood Tales by George Washington Harris) describes men as untamed boys –gambling, drinking, panning, and brawling (the remote had not yet been invented), while their women attend church, sew quilts, and dutifully produce and rear children. In The Image Pedlar, we see women bringing their civilizing influences to the home in the way of nik-naks and finery whose existence, much less necessity, would have escaped most men of any era. Peddlers filled the vacuum created by such need for consumer goods before the age of widespread availability of various kinds of stores. They were a feature common enough to be expected but uncommon enough to pass for entertainment (like most good salesmen) in the era before America built its suburbs and took to the highways.
A painting of a beggar or poor children and their mother, standing thin and bedraggled, looking through the window upon this same scene, or as described in The Education of Little Tree, of a father beating his little daughter for gazing through a Sears catalog, filling her head full of desire for things they could never afford – these might provide a fitting contrast. Another might be that of an artisan trying unsuccessfully to sell his hand-carved figures and hand-made furniture to a vendor who argues why should he pay that much when he can get mass-produced goods (although not as well made but) for less.
Is the peddler related to the family? His face seems similar to that of the father and grandfather, especially the heavy eyelids, so that maybe we are looking at older brother or Uncle Jack. This might explain part of the reason for his success in this house. In fact, it would seem, from examining Edmonds’ Self Portrait painted sometime between 1835 and 1840 (http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v26/26645e01.gif), that he has painted himself right into the picture and into this family, this optimistic mixture of culture and commercialism.
What a happy home! There is no sense of want or fear or bitterness or dysfunction – everyone seems to feel comfortable in this atmosphere of acceptance and love. Even the old woman is free to look disagreeable without receiving the slightest glance of disapproval or condemnation from the others. I compare this to how we treat people who ring our doorbell these days, trying to sell magazines, cookies, lawn maintenance, jewelry, Tupperware, and all the other little necessities of life… and sometimes I have to cringe in guilt for shame, especially when they ring my phone instead.