Artist: John Adams Whipple (American, 1822–1891)
Date: early 1850s
Dimensions: visible: 8.3 x 7 cm (3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.) each
Credit Line: The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts, 1997
Accession Number: 1997.382.41
This rare daguerreotype diptych shows Cornelius Conway Felton (1807–1862), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, reaching for his felt hat and duster. The first son of a poverty-stricken furniture maker, Felton became one of the most renowned classical scholars in the country and, in 1860, Harvard's president. Although Felton donned academic robes, he never lost his connection to the everyday experiences of common folk. He preferred scaling ancient ruins to suffering the ennui of Cambridge clubs and, like Lord Byron, was a sensualist who disdained constricting clothes.
This witty photograph lampoons the rigid formality of the portrait process through narrative gesture (the implied reach across two separate images) and nuance (the delicate crush of the soft hat's crown). As opposed to the inflexible silk top hat worn by dandies and professors alike, the broad-brimmed felt hat was worn by outdoorsmen and was practical, casual, and fundamentally democratic. It could be worn in crowded railway carriages, while shooting in the country, and on archaeological excavations, occasions where the top hat was both uncomfortable and unmanageable. Lambasting London's commercial art bazaar, Oscar Wilde wrote: "A nation arrayed in stove-pipe hats might have built the Pantechnikon possibly, but the Parthenon never."