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“Pictures in the Parlor” is a bit of an oddity. Nominally a photography show, the Smithsonian exhibit spotlights “decorative images” created between the 1840s and the 1930s—primarily portraits of family members—that were displayed in homes “to convey the values, aspirations, and achievements of their owners.” It also shows how families of modest means viewed photography not as an art form with its own distinct aesthetics, but as a medium that could mimic more traditional arts like painting. Some pieces, like “Gentleman in Brown Velvet with Patterned Waistcoat” (shown), could pass for drawings or lithographs; others are too contrasty (and too slathered with gaudy paint) to make the illusion work. But what’s ironic about the works is how anonymous all these stern-faced sitters are—a curious and poignant fate for a selection of works whose intent was to celebrate individuals who were near and dear.

The exhibit is on view daily, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. to June 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW. Free. (202) 633-7970. americanart.si.edu.