The spirit-painter often was said to have no acquaintance with the subject and yet, astonishingly! they were able to capture a perfect likeness of the deceased. This was the traveling mediums’ method of sharing information on “marks” in each town and consisted of entries on names, significant dates, illnesses, and physical characteristics of dead loved ones, and secrets that only the dead would have known. It also suggested obsessions of the living and their vulnerabilities.
People say Spirit-painting is an ancient trick, which has been resorted to by mediums, astrologists, and fortunetellers, in Native America for many years. Anyone who is familiar at all with art materials is aware that canvasses for paintings are usually sold stretched over little wooden frames, which can afterward be inserted into gilded frames if desired. The canvases are made in certain sizes so that it is easy to secure duplicates whenever desired, and any “spirit-painter” can promptly furnish an exact counterpart of any sized canvas that may be given to them to operate upon.
The only ways by which you can be sure that you are getting a genuine spirit picture painted is to furnish your own canvas, mark it unmistakably, and then keep your eye on it every moment. Even then you are liable to be fooled if you are not extremely sharp-sighted. The claim that many of these portraits are recognized as departed friends is very much open to doubt. Spiritualists believed that the human spirit survives death and continues to take an active interest in the mortal world. Central to this movement were spirit mediums. A medium was someone who was perceived to have a special sensitivity to spirit communication, and through whom it was believed such communication across the two worlds was possible.
Since drawings and paintings were deemed to be spirit artifacts by fellow spiritualists. In order to understand both the visual language and the spiritual status of such artworks, there was an emphasis on the way in which they were created. The medium would often go into a trance, during which it was believed that he or she would channel the spirit who would then author the artwork. The artworks produced were also thought to be evidence of spiritual interactions with mortals. These mediums’ works were intended to be understood by spiritualists who had sacred knowledge of the spirit world, and for those who did not have such an insight, the medium was necessary to further mediate the artwork’s meaning to the viewer.
The collective work by medium artists is an overlooked area of 19th-century artistic output. It was forgotten by the mainstream mainly due to a lasting skepticism of the practices that produced the “spiritual” oeuvre.