Copper in the Arts

June 2018

Daguerreotypes: Five Decades of Collecting Debuts at the Smithsonian

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian is bringing the copper art of daguerreotypes back to center stage. This early form of photography, where an image was captured and transferred via a copper plate, brought portraiture within reach of average Americans in the mid-1800s.

Today, they are an essential part of the museum’s collection. Daguerreotypes: Five Decades of Collecting celebrates the Portrait Gallery’s tradition of collecting with this intimate exhibition of 13 small-scale, one-of-a-kind portraits of early American influencers.

news.jpgMatthew Calbraith Perry by Beckers and Piard, by Alexander Beckers,
by Victor Piard. Half-plate daguerreotype c. 1855.
Photograph courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

A daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind, direct-positive image produced on a sensitized plate of silver-clad copper. The process was introduced by French artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, but American practitioners were the ones who recognized the daguerreotype’s potential as a portrait medium. Through technical innovations, they transformed it from an experimental process into a commercially viable one within months of its introduction in August 1839. For nearly 20 years, the daguerreotype flourished in the United States as Americans flocked to studios in communities large and small to pose for their portraits.

This rare exhibition, on view through June 2, 2019, celebrates the museum’s golden anniversary and highlights its extraordinary collection. With more than 23,000 objects, the Portrait Gallery holds some of the most important photographic portraits, including prized glass-plate negatives by Mathew Brady and the acclaimed 2017 acquisition of an 1843 daguerreotype likeness of President John Quincy Adams by artist Philip Haas, on permanent view in the museum’s America’s Presidents gallery.

The Portrait Gallery’s first photographic acquisition was a daguerreotype, which arrived as a gift in 1965—three years before the museum opened its doors to the public. The image was a portrait by Marcus Aurelius Root of poet, painter and sculptor Thomas Buchanan Read, whose equestrian portrait of Union army general Philip Sheridan is on exhibit in the museum’s Civil War galleries.

When an Act of Congress established the National Portrait Gallery in 1962, the new museum was not initially authorized to collect photographs. An exception was made to accommodate gifts to its Support Collection. This enabled the Portrait Gallery to accept several significant daguerreotype portraits before 1976, when its charter was amended to allow for the acquisition of photographs. The museum’s collection now includes more than 150 daguerreotypes representing individuals as diverse in their achievements as showman P.T. Barnum, Seneca Nation leader Blacksnake, actress Charlotte Cushman, humanitarian Dorothea Dix, surgeon Thomas D. Mütter, U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and writer Henry David Thoreau.

“These daguerreotypes are remarkable artifacts from the dawn of American photography,” Shumard said. “Each is truly, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said, a ‘mirror with a memory.’”


Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC

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