Taking the Census

Artist: Francis William Edmonds (American, Hudson, New York 1806–1863 Bronxville, New York)

Date: 1854

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 28 x 38 in. (71.1 x 96.5 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006

Accession Number: 2006.457


The United States Census of 1850 initiated the requirement that heads of households provide information about each of their dependents. The new regulation caused a good deal of confusion. Edmonds’s humorous image, which is the earliest known portrayal of the census-taking process, features a father’s painstaking efforts to recall his family statistics, while several of his children hide from sight. The small framed portrait of George Washington above the mantel evokes not only the genesis of the country’s political system but also the legendary admonition never to tell a lie. The carefully lit interior and wealth of detail in the composition were inspired, in part, by earlier Dutch genre scenes.