[Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt]
Mathew B. Brady American, born Ireland
Not on view
Brady was never much engaged in the manipulation of plates and chemicals, preferring to use the assistance of skilled operators for the mechanical aspects of the process while he, as the artist of the studio, occupied himself with the selection of lenses and cameras, the arrangement of the picture, the physical and psychological comfort of his sitters, and the promotion of his business. For expertise with wet plates Brady relied on Alexander Gardner, an experienced publisher, businessman, and photographer from Glasgow who emigrated to the United States in 1856. Gardner began working for Brady the same year. Two years later he was placed at the helm of the newly established Brady studio in Washington, D.C.
The introduction of glass negatives was important to Brady's business because they offered the possibility of limitless prints from a single sitting. In addition, the process allowed for the enlarging of negatives to yield life-sized portraits that could be heavily retouched with watercolor, ink, crayon, or oils to flatter the sitter and to add both an artistic aura to the print and a substantial surcharge to the price. Brady dubbed the large prints, which measured 17 x 21 inches and cost $50 to $500 each, "imperials."
Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt (1810-1876), shown in this salted paper print imperial, was precisely the type of customer Brady sought to attract and one whose portrait session he would surely have directed personally. As a young woman she had been one of the belles of the capital, and as the wife of Congressman James J. Roosevelt during the 1842-43 term, she had brought about a social revolution by hosting dinner and evening parties with her husband at which President John Tyler attended as an unassuming guest. In New York, where she resided for most of her life, she was a central figure in the social world, respected as much for her intellectual conversation and dignified manner as for the splendor and refinement of her entertainments.
Dressed in a tiered skirt of silk taffeta, a pagoda-sleeved bodice, and black lace shawl, Cornelia Roosevelt presents herself in the highest fashion of the mid- to late 1850s; only her hair, in a style more typical of the 1840s, harks back to her more youthful days. Brady, sensing his subject's ability to hold her own, posed Mrs. Roosevelt full-length in a broad space. No studio props, save a large swag of drapery, are present to compete with her ample presence and numerous personal accessories.