Breathing life into the Bakers
Artist Michael Allison’s portraits of Altoona’s most well-known industrialist family — Elias Baker, his wife and three children — are now on display at the historic Baker Mansion providing insight into Altoona’s prominent 1800s family.
“I tried to humanize the family and try to convey our sense of the person,” Allison said. The five portraits hang in the restored downstairs double parlor — another Allison project.
The portraits became a reality thanks to generous donations from several individuals, said Michael Farrow, president of the Board of Trustee of the Blair County Historical Society which owns the mansion. Donors include a former Altoona resident who wishes to remain anonymous, and Dr. Carroll and Diane Osgood, John Lloyd Hanson and Daniel and Cynthia Moringiello.
“He (Allison) was asking for people to sponsor each portrait and Dan and I chose Anna because she played the piano,” said Cynthia Moringiello, who is also the Blair County Historical Society corresponding secretary.
“I am a musician and play the piano also. I have had the Mansion piano tuned by Fred Fornwalt and enjoy playing on it from one of Anna’s books we have at the Mansion. I love Mike Allison’s work and think the portrait of Anna is excellent.”
Anna Baker never married but enjoyed music and sitting outdoors. To reflect those interests, Allison painted Anna sitting in the shade of the sideporch — represented by an ivy-laced wrought iron trellis and railing. Her love of music is well-evidenced. Her father Elias purchased a piano for her from Baltimore piano manufacturers Knabe and Gaehle and it remains on display.
Anna is the most-photographed Baker, Allison explained, as she was the youngest child. “We had photos of her from when she was a teenager to when she was an elderly woman.”
All the Bakers are depicted in their prime — generally from their late-20s to mid-30s — “in the prime of life,” in keeping with traditions of the time. Allison worked from daguerreotypes — early photographs — of the family members and embellished the portraits with items associated with each based on historical research.
“Mike had to research the colors so they looked appropriate for the era,” Cynthia Moringiello said. “We are very grateful for Mike and his dedication to BCHS. He has been so caring in his restoration of the Mansion as well. It is beautiful! I hope people will come and enjoy the restored Mansion and the exhibits and family portraits! Our new curators change the exhibits periodically. We would love to have more people come and see the “new” Baker Mansion, exhibits and beautiful portraits by Mike Allison.”
Previously, the mansion displayed small, black-and-white photos of the Bakers, but didn’t have any paintings of the family, said Joseph DeFrancesco, executive director of the Blair County Historical Society. “(The paintings) are really the result of teamwork and a group effort. The paintings add a human element that wasn’t there before,” he said. “They add life to the room and an aspect that wasn’t there before.”
About the portraits:
Elias Baker is shown with a book in his hand, a reference to his being an avid reader. Allison said, “I got the impression of an incredibly selfish man. He was pretty much all about him. During the construction — when problems arose — he didn’t take responsibility but put the blame on others even when he was clearly wrong. He was contentious.”
Hetty Woods Baker is also shown with a book, as the couple shared a love of reading. “She clearly loved her children,” Allison said.
David and his father butted heads frequently prompting David to leave Altoona and attend Princeton University at his own expense.
David, is portrayed by Allison wearing a smoking cap, his right hand holding a book in his lap and his left hand tucked inside his black vest. In the background, a sextant — an instrument used by Baker — and other land surveyors — during his work with the Eastern Coastel Survey team. The survey team was created by Thomas Jefferson to survey the Atlantic coastline and log weather conditions.
“Eventually, this society became NOAH,” Allison said. “He was really one of the early NOAH employees.”
Tragically, David died a day after suffering burns in a steam boat accident. He left a wife and young daughter.
“He was truly a self-made man,” Allison said. “I portrayed him as a young lad stepping out into the world after college. He’s wearing a smoking hat set at a jaunty angle. And, his hand in his vest is a Napoleonic reference.”
Allison used one of a few photographs taken of David and one depicted him in the hat. In that photo, David is posed hat on head and hand-in-vest — an action typical of many a young man of his day. “He looks like somebody you could go to college with … It’s a very theatrical pose and it made him that much more human,” he explained.
Despite David’s wishes to be interred elsewhere, Elias had his oldest son brought to Altoona for burial.
David’s younger brother Sylvester never married and is credited with negotiating business deals that helped keep the family afloat financially and kept the furnace running. The furnace — running at full capacity is belching smoke in the background of Sylvester’s portrait and his arm is draped around the neck of a large black dog, likely a Newfoundland.
“I wanted them (the Baker family) to be human,” Allison said, “I didn’t want them to look like a museum display, but instead living breathing people. The items portrayed with each will help the guides in their tours by providing talking points. I am hoping people ask questions about why the items are in the portraits.”
Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.