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As I became familiar with the photographs in the fall exhibition at the Taft Museum of Art, Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones, I was struck by the similarities between some of Cones’s prints and paintings in the Taft’s permanent collection.
Cones was inspired by European paintings. She studied images in Art and Artists of All Nations, a large book she owned that included more than 400 reproductions, most of which are popular sentimental and whimsical paintings. There’s also evidence that Cones was familiar with more serious art. On one occasion, Cones dressed herself in costume for a photograph that emulated Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of actress Sarah Siddons. While this painting is not in the Taft collection, the museum owns two other portraits by the British artist.
Nancy Ford Cones found inspiration in her daily life and in Dutch and French paintings similar to those in the Taft collection. The following are paintings that demonstrate the subjects—especially portraits and scenes from daily life—that influenced Cones.
Threading the Needle (pictured below, at left) earned Cones a prize in the 1905 Kodak competition. According to Kodak, “Every picture should tell a story.” Cones’s winning photograph shared a nostalgic narrative as an old woman teaches her granddaughter how to sew. The work finds its roots in European genre paintings, or scenes from daily life. A terrific example is Jozef Israëls’s Sewing School at Katwijk (below, at right). Both Israëls’s and Cones’s works highlight the story of women passing knowledge to younger generations.
Many French painters in the 1800s painted peasants at work. Here, French artist Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña and Cones present people laboring in the forest. The painter and photographer both chose to highlight the workers’ idyllic connection to nature rather than the menial aspects of their tasks. Art and Artists of All Nations included a landscape by Camille Corot (one of Charles and Anna Taft’s favorite artists) that featured peasants gathering wood, similar in subject to this work by Diaz.
Cones’s fanciful character studies were likely inspired by Dutch paintings of the 1600s. Artists including Rembrandt van Rijn and Govaert Flinck, both represented in the Taft collection, painted figures dressed in costume to spark viewers’ imaginations. Cones’s subject matter and printing process emulated these paintings—gum bichromate prints created subtle shifts from light to dark and soft edges that imitated loose brushwork.
Did Cones see the Taft collection first-hand? Charles and Anna Taft’s home did not become a museum until 1932, near the end of Cones’s creative output. However, she photographed a woman with a camera standing in front of the Taft home in 1912 and around that same year made portraits of the Taft family (the locations of which are unknown). Did the Tafts invite her to see their collection at that time, as they had invited other artists? It’s plausible, but we may never know for sure.