Weekly Feature

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Celebrity Through the Ages

January 07, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Our final installment brings us to the modern day, where the celebrity can be immortalized by technology and any citizen can become a celebrity.

A Linguistic Tradition

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The word “celebrity,” from the Latin celebritas, meaning “frequented or honored,” has carried its original meaning for hundreds of years. The historical figures most “frequented” or “honored” were deities, politicians, monarchs, aristocrats, and Renaissance men like Benjamin Franklin, discussed below, whose power and influence ranged from scientific inventions, to politics, social issues, and the arts.

The Honorable Monarch


Lindsay Lohan may cash in on her own image by posing for the paparazzi, but she isn’t the first person to do so: a certain famed monarch of the 16th century did the same thing. Queen Elizabeth I, the Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, fashioned an entire public-relations campaign for herself. Preferring to marry her country instead of a man of power, Elizabeth took advantage of her unique status: she was Henry VIII’s sole heir; young, single, and Anglican. She was also an enormous patron of the arts.

Elizabeth’s marketing strategy involved commissioning artists to create symbol-laden portraits, several of which compared her to the Virgin Mary. Many were elegant cameos gifted to important political and royal figures and members of England’s aristocracy. Others were stately oil paintings that continually reminded subjects of the Queen’s sacred power.

As Brittania.com, a British history site, explains in its short bio of her, Queen Elizabeth was “immensely popular.” But that popularity did not arise out of militaristic accomplishments or strong diplomatic ties, though both were features of her long reign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a turning point for the Queen’s kingdom, and the event was “advertised” with the well-known Armada Portrait of 1588, which sought to depict the Queen as a competent—and yes, female—commander-in-chief of the English military.

And as the commander-in-chief of her own PR campaign, “If the Queen was not happy with a portrait, then she would have it destroyed,” according to ElizabethI.org’s article on the Queen’s portraiture. "This was not entirely governed by vanity, as has been suggested in the past, but because the Queen was very conscious of her public image.” Browse some of the most well known portraits of Elizabeth via ElizabethI.org, which is a tribute site to the Queen. Also check out Artcyclopedia's "Overflattering Portraits" feature on other important figures who had similar concerns to Elizabeth.

The Huntington Library, in an exhibit titled “Gloriana!”, also argues that the Queen “possessed skills more familiar to our modern world: she was a genius at public relations, and understood instinctively how best to use all the available media of her day. In speeches and writing, public appearances and official ceremonies, dress and comportment and paintings and prints, the Queen displayed a hard-headed approach to controlling her own image."

The Immovable Picture


Another English celebrity, Joshua Reynolds, was a contemporary of Wordsworth and one of the most prolific portraitists in the history of art. His collection of admirers and enemies, his great output as a painter, and his fascination with his own image and public persona make Reynolds a precursor of this century’s movie stars and socialites. On top of that, Reynolds was the 18th century’s very own paparazzo, painting hundreds of images of important aristocrats, artists, literati (such as Laurence Sterne), politicians, and royal family members (including George IV, painted during his reign as Prince of Wales). As a documentarian of regal British society, Reynolds himself enjoyed celebrity—by talent and by connection to his impressive clientele.

In 2005, the Tate Gallery in London called attention to Reynolds’ fame factor in its exhibition, “Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity.” (Also worth checking out is Martin Postle’s book of the same name.) As the Tate mentions on the exhibit’s online page, Reynolds was “fascinated by his image: by the persona he projected to the outside world.”

Like most major celebrities, Reynolds wasn’t exempt from flack. As the Tate mentions, the 18th century magazine Town & Country had a column called “Tete à Tete,” which once featured a poem in “tribute” to Reynolds. Also included in that issue is a poetic response from Reynolds himself. It’s a literary version of Britney Spears turning the camera on the paparazzi, giving the ogling spectators a taste of their own medicine.

The majority of Reynolds’ clientele came from the aristocracy, a nearly (if not literally) royal class of citizen for which a portrait—or several—was deemed a necessary privilege. Rather like today’s photograph-obsessed culture, in which more press clippings equals more fame, having one’s portrait painted meant “making it,” whether one was a young, wealthy woman coming out in society, or a member of the literati whose true arrival might be signaled by the artistic services of someone like Reynolds.

In America, the situation was similar. The growing mercantile class, many of them descended from the British, “commissioned portraits as status symbols. Sitters posed in well-appointed interiors or landscapes in their finest clothes in order to document their property, good taste, and sophistication,” according to the National Gallery of Art’s article on portraiture.

A Daguerreotype is Worth …


Photography was the next milestone in the development of celebrity. The medium burgeoned into an art genre all its own in a matter of decades. A photograph could be hung in an art gallery, but it was also an official document that has helped us trace the United States’ evolution from British offspring to autonomous seat of innovation.

The Daguerreian Society is a national organization for aficionados of early photography, specifically the daguerreotype. On the Society’s Web site is a republished 1896 essay from McClure’s Magazine, “The Daguerreotype in America”. The article is an enjoyable examination of the early photograph’s role in 19th-century America, illustrated with several of daguerreotype portraits.

One daguerreotyper, M.B. Brady, gained fame by “secur[ing] portraits of the most distinguished,” particularly in 1860s Washington, a city then “thronged with men who were helping to make the history of America.” Wealthy citizens and daguerreotypers collected such portraits in their homes, creating lavish galleries that boasted of their connections to this artistic innovation and to their country’s living legends, including such stars as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wendell Philips, and Daguerre himself.

Browse some early images from the 1860s, a crucial decade in American history, from PictureHistory.com.

Today, naturally, the pictures of these stars are worth a small fortune. A daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, dated to 1847, was featured on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow and was appraised for at least $30,000 to $50,000.

Our Nation’s First Celebrity?


Clearly, an early photograph of an important person was valuable even when the person was alive, and is extraordinarily valuable today. But what made a person important enough to be a model in a photograph? Model citizens like Benjamin Franklin were the kinds of figures who lived the “American dream,” and promoted the concept, before that concept was fully articulated by our culture.

The “U.S. Life, Culture & History” page, from the U.S. Department of State, calls Franklin “America’s First International Celebrity.” Franklin rose from relative poverty to become a Renaissance man during the formative years of the United States; a key player in the four most symbolic documents in the country’s independence from Great Britain; an avid researcher and experimenter; a journalist; and a humanitarian and abolitionist. Franklin’s face now decorates our most prized bank note, and he continues to be an object of fascination among biographers and regular citizens. Read more from the State Department’s January 2006 article on the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. Author Stephen Kaufman calls Franklin’s “interests and influence still astonishing after 300 years.”
Return tomorrow for a look at how the photograph and the paparazzi transformed our country's modern statesmen and stars into unforgettable forces.
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