Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860

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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.


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.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • Gabriel Harrison; Walt Whitman
  • Mathew B. Brady; John James Audubon
  • Samuel Masury: Early View from the Dell

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Fascinated by François Gouraud's demonstrations in Boston of Daguerre's new invention, Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894), a pharmacist in Cabotville (now Chicopee), Massachusetts, went to New York in 1840 to study the technique with Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) (2005.100.75), who had learned about photography from Daguerre himself. Within a year, Southworth had opened a daguerreotype studio in Boston with Morse's assistant, Joseph Pennell, who had been Southworth's roommate in preparatory school. When Pennell left the firm in 1843, Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) took his place, and the celebrated nineteen-year partnership of Southworth & Hawes was born. The firm was known around the world for its aesthetic accomplishments and technical finesse. The Boston partnership produced among the finest portrait daguerreotypes in America for leading political, intellectual, and artistic figures, from Daniel Webster (37.14.2) to Harriet Beecher Stowe (37.14.40).

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 (56.517.4) 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.

Elite daguerreotype studios were outfitted with colorful velvet tapestry, frescoed ceilings, six-light chandeliers, and, of course, impressive daguerreotype portraits of kings and queens, politicians, and even Native American chiefs (2005.100.82) displayed on the walls, dressed up in fine frames. Nevertheless, the medium's success in America was built upon the patronage of the average worker who desired a simple likeness to keep for himself, or more likely, to send to a loved one as the era's most enduring pledge of friendship. Among the many momentous social transformations generated by photography's invention was the possibility of self-representation by a large variety of groups previously excluded from official portraiture. Seamstresses, carpenters, actors (1999.481.1), goldminers, and even the recently deceased all sat for their official portraits, leaving behind an extremely valuable record of their anonymous, if not invisible, lives.

Early American Photography on Paper, 1850s–1860s
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) (40.102.9), 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) (1981.1229.4), and Silas A. Holmes (1820–1886) (1997.382.52) could simultaneously record the city's inhabitants and its streets and monuments, something not easily accomplished with the daguerreotype process.

The vast majority of American photographs made before the Civil War era are portraits. Before the late 1850s, city and town views are rare; studies of the landscape exceedingly so. By 1860, however, city views such as those published as stereographs by the E. & H. T. Anthony Company soon fulfilled the population's ravenous desire for nonportrait photographs, including busy urban scenes (1980.1056.3), genre studies, and unusual rural landscapes from Niagara Falls to Yosemite. A stereograph, commonly known as a stereo view, is a double photograph presented in such a manner that an observer looking through a stereoscope sees a single image in three dimensions. Introduced in 1840, stereoscopy did not become truly popular in America until the late 1850s, when stereo photography became a novelty collectible.


Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walt Whitman, ca. 1854
Attributed to Gabriel Harrison (American, 1818–1902)
Daguerreotype
The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, Rare Books Division

In 1855, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, a paean to the American democratic spirit. The series of poems effectively argues that the day laborer and the grocer, not landed statesmen and bankers, were the heroes of the New World. To emphasize this point, Whitman included an engraving of himself as the book's frontispiece. Drawn from a now lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, the image shows the bard clothed exactly as in this portrait: as a carpenter, jacketless with his undershirt peeking out through his open shirt collar. This daguerreotype, the most famous surviving photograph of Whitman, is known historically as the "Christ likeness."

John James Audubon, 1847–48
Mathew B. Brady (American, 1823–1896)
Daguerreotype; Image: 4 1/4 x 3 1/4 in. (10.8 x 8.3 cm) on plate 5 5/16 x 3 15/16 in. (13.5 x 10 cm) in case 5 7/8 x 4 3/4 x 13/16 in. (15 x 12 x 2 cm)
Centennial Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Shaffer, Jr. (1981.144)
Cincinnati Art Museum

In 1850, Mathew B. Brady and the French-born lithographer D'Avignon published a suite of twelve portrait lithographs entitled The Gallery of Illustrious Americans. Complementing the fine prints drawn from Brady's daguerreotypes were extensive biographies of the subjects, including John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John James Audubon. Brady's original daguerreotype of the author and illustrator of The Birds of America shows that the subject's raptorlike features are minutely detailed by the camera with even more exactitude than Audubon himself could bring to the description of his beloved birds. Reasonably priced, the publication was meant to overcome the nagging deficiencies of the daguerreotype—that each was a one-of-a-kind image and that they were small in size. Brady's and D'Avignon's project, although a commercial failure, is one of the early links between the nascent medium of photography and printmaking.

Early View from the Dell, 1859
Samuel Masury (American, ca. 1818–1874)
Albumenized salted paper print; 10 1/8 x 13 1/2 in. (26 x 34.6 cm)
Gilman Paper Company Collection

Samuel Masury is known primarily as an early daguerreian portraitist who learned his trade in 1842 at John Plumbe's Boston gallery. Ever interested in the latest technical and artistic refinements to the medium, he traveled to Paris in 1855 to learn the glass negative process from the Bisson brothers, whose landscapes and architectural views were internationally celebrated. Charles Greeley Loring's summer estate near Beverly, Massachusetts, on Boston's North Shore, proved to be a perfect stage to test his new knowledge. One summer day, Masury trained his camera directly into the sun and took pleasure in the comparison between the foreground's deep tonal shadows and the radiant expanse of sea and sky. This enchanting view, one of the earliest American landscapes on paper, recalls paintings by Masury's contemporary John Kensett, who frequently sketched at Loring's estate and who appears in a related photograph. It also recalls a description of Kensett's Quiet Day on the Beverly Shore: "It is a quiet c