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November 5, 2023

Portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper, the First Photographic Portrait Made in the United States, 1840

Dorothy Catherine Draper is a truly forgotten figure in American history. She was the first woman to ever sit for a photograph — a daguerrotype, actually, in the year 1840, upon the rooftop of the school which would become New York University.

Dorothy Catherine Draper in the first portrait photograph ever taken (no previous test examples survive) and the first photograph of a female face.

The circumstances that got her to this position were rather unique. She was the older sister of a professor named John William Draper, and she assisted him in his success and fame even when it seemed a detriment to her. The Drapers worked alongside Samuel Morse in the period following his invention of the telegraph.

The legendary portrait was taken when Miss Draper was a young woman but a renewed interest in the image in the 1890s brought the now elderly matron a bit of late-in-life recognition.

Draper in the 1890s, in a photograph taken by her nephew.

John Draper was a 29-year-old professor of chemistry in the NYU medical school. He’d been born in England, finished college there, and married when he was only 20. A year later his whole extended family moved to Virginia where he’d meant to take a teaching job. But the job had vanished when he arrived. So he did research in chemistry on his own, published papers, then entered and finished medical school. All the while, sister Dorothy, working as an artist, helped to support him and his wife. And that paid off. In 1837, NYU offered him a professorship.

Louis Daguerre published his new daguerreotype process two years later and Draper pounced upon it. He immediately saw how the method could be adapted to portrait photography. And that’s how this haunting photo of his sister came into being. She sit unblinking for its 65-second exposure – still as a sphinx in her lace and bonnet. Draper dusted her face with white flour to enhance the contrast. The result actually worked. Dorothy's face is surprisingly natural.


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