August 31, 2018

16 Amazing Studio Portraits From the Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography From the 1840s and 1850s

The daguerreotype, the first photographic process, was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) and spread rapidly around the world after its presentation to the public in Paris in 1839. Exposed in a camera obscura and developed in mercury vapors, each highly polished silvered copper plate is a unique photograph that, when viewed in proper light, exhibits extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality.


Although born in Europe, the daguerreotype was extremely popular in the United States—especially in New York City, where in the late 1850s hundreds of daguerreotypists vied for clients. The most successful artists built lavish portrait studios on the upper floors of buildings on and just off Broadway, and in other major American cities from Boston to San Francisco.

No artist is more closely tied to the early years of American photographic practice than Mathew B. Brady (1823?–1896). A skilled daguerreotypist, he learned the technical aspects of the process from the American pioneers of the medium, Samuel Morse and John Draper. Brady opened his first studio in 1844 and set himself the task of photographing the nation’s leading figures—presidents and military men, business leaders and stars of the stage, writers and artists. In the mid-1850s, however, Brady and other artists began using collodion-on-glass negatives, or wet plates, and soon the era of the daguerreotype was over. By the onset of the Civil War, the paper print had replaced the daguerreotype altogether as the means by which Brady and other artists distributed the faces and scenes of their time.

Although quite popular in Europe, photography with paper negatives as invented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839 found little favor in America. The daguerreotype process, employing a polished silver-plated sheet of copper, was the dominant form of photography for the first twenty years of picture making in the United States. A notable exception is the work of the little-known French-born artist Victor Prevost (1820–1881), who in 1853 undertook a speculative project to create a photographic catalogue of the changing shape of New York City—a monument constantly in the making.

By the late 1850s, most American artists had switched from the daguerreotype process to large glass-plate negatives and albumen silver prints that combined the exquisite clarity of the daguerreotype and the endless reproducibility of paper-print photography. The glass plates were also extremely light sensitive, making exposure times dramatically shorter. Photographers such as Mathew B. Brady, James Wallace Black (1825–1896), and Silas A. Holmes (1820–1886) could simultaneously record the city’s inhabitants and its streets and monuments, something not easily accomplished with the daguerreotype process.

1. Portrait of a Young Man, 1840

(Photo: Samuel F. B. Morse)

Samuel F. B. Morse met Louis Daguerre, the French inventor of photography, in Paris in the spring of 1839. Morse was the first American to see a daguerreotype and among the earliest artists in the United States to experiment with the new medium. This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America. The strength of the portrait is in the young man's rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.


2. Blind Man and His Reader, ca. 1850

(Photo: Unknown)

Little is known about this enigmatic portrait except that the young reader holds a copy of the New York Herald. Known for its prurient interest in scandal and crime, as well as its pioneering use of the telegraph and railroad to gather news, the newspaper, launched in 1835, had the largest circulation of any daily in the United States. One wonders what was in the news the day this photograph was made. The outbreak of the Mexican-American war in 1846? The discovery of gold in California in 1848? Or perhaps an article from Brighton, England, on Dr. W. Moon's system (1847) of raised type that allowed the blind to read with their fingers? Moon type, as it was known, pre-dated by more than twenty years the universal adoption in 1869 of Louis Braille's system (1834) of raised points.


3. Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), ca. 1848

(Photo: Unknown)


4. Lemuel Shaw, ca. 1850

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

The Boston partnership of Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait daguerreotypes in America for a clientele that included leading political, intellectual, and artistic figures. This first photographic process, invented by Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), spread rapidly around the world after its public presentation in Paris in 1839. Exposed in a camera obscura and developed in mercury vapors, each highly polished silvered copper plate is a unique photograph that, viewed in proper light, exhibits extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality. Lemuel Shaw's imposing presence, sculpted by intense sunlight and gifted artistic vision, is a startling departure from the conventional posed portrait, customarily set in a studio and lit indirectly.


5. Daniel Webster, ca. 1850

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was one of nineteenth-century America's most imposing figures, a statesman and orator of staggering power and erudition. He sat for this portrait just one month before his controversial speech in support of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners, a stance which subsequently contributed to Webster's political downfall. Southworth & Hawes' monumental depiction seems to embody Carlyle's opinion that "as a logic fencer, advocate, or parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back [Webster] at first sight against all the extant world."


6. Rufus Choate, ca. 1850

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

Rufus Choate (1799-1859), one of America's most capable lawyers and statesmen, served in both the state and federal government and was known for his classical orations. It is not surprising that Southworth & Hawes, whose studio adjoined Choate's law office, asked him to pose. Only after repeated requests from the photographers, who promised the sitting would take only fifteen minutes, did the busy lawyer agree. On the appointed day, Choate posed four or five times with the appropriate props-a law book and a bust of an orator-before rushing back to his client-filled office. Choate's famous wild locks, disheveled clothing, and haggard features are recorded in this faithful portrait of an overworked man who frequently suffered from debilitating headaches yet was driven by a prodigious nervous energy and an intense love of his profession.


7. George Lippard, late 1840s–54

(Photo: Unknown)

A religious and philosophical child prodigy from Philadelphia, George Lippard (1822-1854) was a prolific author and a steadfast defender of the oppressed. In 1847, he founded the Brotherhood of America, an organization that continues to champion the underprivileged today, and his writings are said to have awakened Abraham Lincoln to the plight of slaves. Lippard, whose best known essays recorded "Legends" of old Philadelphia, was also a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe.


8. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ca. 1850s

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

This quarter-plate daguerreotype of the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was probably made around the time of the publication of her influential novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The enormously successful book, which the deeply religious Stowe maintained was the result of a vision from God, was instrumental in focusing antislavery sentiment in the North prior to the Civil War. Charmingly paired with a delicate potted plant in a scene evoking a quiet domestic interior, Stowe appears small and rather demure-a surprisingly mild depiction of a woman known for the power of her literary voice, and for her passionate espousal of abolition.


9. Man Holding Patent Office Book, ca. 1857

(Attributed to Oliver H. Willard)

O. H. Willard was active in Philadelphia, producing stereo views, cartes-de-visite, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes. He remains a relatively obscure early practitioner of the wet plate and salted paper processes. The weighty patent-office book may have belonged to the unknown sitter, or it may simply have been a prop supplied by the artist to steady the sitter's hands. Like many men of this period, the sitter perhaps had his portrait made as a remembrance for family members prior to a move west, or perhaps to commemorate the award signified by the ribbon proudly pinned to his shirt. His direct gaze and plain clothing, and the slight stiffness of his pose, speak to the artless nobility of the common man, a theme celebrated by Walt Whitman, who portrayed himself as a similar figure in the frontispiece of his inaugural book of poems, Leaves of Grass (1855).


10. Portrait of a Youth, ca. 1850–60s

(Photo: Unknown)

This highly unusual formal portrait of a young African-American boy with the studied composure of a visiting prince came to light in a Boston auction in the 1980s. As the spiritual center of the abolitionist movement, Boston is a likely source for this large salted paper print. The photographer presents his sitter as destined for prominence, an apt embodiment of the abolitionist cause. The carefully posed composition and the size of the picture suggest the work of one of Boston's finest photographers: John Adams Whipple, James Wallace Black, or the firm of Southworth & Hawes.


11. Man Whittling a Stick, ca. 1850–55

(Photo: Unknown)

The "wily Yankee" was a popular mid-nineteenth-century stage character from American regional theater. With tricks of cunning and an exaggerated costume (top hat, wide striped pants), this stock player became the visual prototype for America's "Uncle Sam." The motif of the whittler relates to the character's role. Between acts, the Yankee remained on stage, whittled, and told parables. At times, he also flirted with both the women and men in the audience as he suggestively carved a stick at his crotch.


12. Kno-Shr, Kansas Chief, 1853

(Photo: John H. Fitzgibbon)

From 1846 to 1860, John Fitzgibbon operated one of America's most prominent daguerreian establishments in the frontier city of Saint Louis, Missouri. Fitzgibbon learned photography in 1839 while apprenticed as a saddler in Philadelphia, but he is best known for his studio portraits and scenes of regional life in the territories west of the Mississippi River. This daguerreotype of Kno-Shr, a Kansa, is one of the few dated pre-Civil War portraits of a Native American whose name and tribe are known. The chief is shown bare-chested, wearing a traditional grizzly bear claw necklace, the most coveted of all Plains Indian body ornaments. Several details are handcolored with red paint, the color of strength and success and a powerful agent to ward off evil spirits. Made during the height of the country's territorial expansion beyond the Mississippi, the photograph is remarkable as a document of a Native American before assimilation.


13. Frederick Douglass


Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) escaped his bondage in 1838 and became the most persuasive orator for the cause of abolition, among other reformist causes. In addition to founding a newspaper and penning three autobiographies, he lectured extensively before and during the Civil War, "thundering against slavery," in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois. One of the first critical theorists of photography, Douglass delivered multiple lectures on the topic between 1861 and 1865, including "Pictures and Progress," on the medium’s ability to render subjective consciousness in an objective form. He advocated for photography’s potential to counteract distorted representations of African Americans and reverse the "social death" caused by slavery. Douglass posed for a series of influential portraits over several decades and circulated his image broadly in multiple photographic formats.


14. President Martin Van Buren, ca. 1855–58

(Photo: Mathew B. Brady)

The eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was a seasoned statesman whose own clout was synonymous with the Democratic party's. He held office as attorney general and governor of New York, United States senator, and ambassador to England, secretary of state, and vice-president under Andrew Jackson. Although short in stature, Van Buren was a shrewd political stalwart whom the press dubbed "The Little Magician." By the mid-1850s, however, Van Buren had fallen out of political favor, having lost his bid for his party's presidential nomination in 1840 and 1844, and the third-party "Free Soilers" campaign for the first office in 1848. Nonetheless, Van Buren was just the right type of illustrious American on whom Brady could promote his burgeoning New York portrait studio. The portrait disguises Van Buren's small size and recalls his former prominence as an American president, one of only four living in 1855. The exceedingly large print was known as an "imperial," a term coined by Brady for a portrait that in scale and ambition would rival lithographs and mezzotints.


15. Two Girls in Identical Dresses, ca. 1857

(Photo: Jeremiah Gurney)

Jeremiah Gurney was born in New York State and moved to New York City to work in the jewelry trade. He was among the earliest of the city's residents to learn the daguerreotype process and in 1840 opened one of the first portrait galleries on Broadway. Blessed with remarkable technical skills, Gurney created tonally delicate, startlingly three-dimensional portraits such as this study of two sisters. His clientele were New York's cultural elite, not the political and entertainment world catered to by his more illustrious colleague, Mathew B. Brady. Gurney effortlessly established himself, not by soliciting portraits of public figures but simply by producing the finest daguerreotypes in Gotham.


16. Cornelius Conway Felton with His Hat and Coat, early 1850s

(Photo: John Adams Whipple)

This rare daguerreotype diptych shows Cornelius Conway Felton (1807–1862), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, reaching for his felt hat and duster. The first son of a poverty-stricken furniture maker, Felton became one of the most renowned classical scholars in the country and, in 1860, Harvard's president. Although Felton donned academic robes, he never lost his connection to the everyday experiences of common folk. He preferred scaling ancient ruins to suffering the ennui of Cambridge clubs and, like Lord Byron, was a sensualist who disdained constricting clothes.

This witty photograph lampoons the rigid formality of the portrait process through narrative gesture (the implied reach across two separate images) and nuance (the delicate crush of the soft hat's crown). As opposed to the inflexible silk top hat worn by dandies and professors alike, the broad-brimmed felt hat was worn by outdoorsmen and was practical, casual, and fundamentally democratic. It could be worn in crowded railway carriages, while shooting in the country, and on archaeological excavations, occasions where the top hat was both uncomfortable and unmanageable. Lambasting London's commercial art bazaar, Oscar Wilde wrote: "A nation arrayed in stove-pipe hats might have built the Pantechnikon possibly, but the Parthenon never."


(via Metropolitan Museum of Art)




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