As part of its 50th anniversary, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will be celebrating the daguerreotype process with an intimate exhibition of fascinating portraits made in the 1800s. A showcase not to be missed, “Daguerreotypes: Five Decades of Collecting” will open on June 15th and will feature 13 small-scale, one-of-a-kind daguerreotype portraits that have become an essential part of the museum’s collection.
French artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the process, but American practitioners saw and pushed its potential for portraiture months after it was introduced in 1839. The daguerreotype in fact holds the distinction of being the first commercially viable form of photography that brought portraiture to the average Americans during the mid-1800s. This traditional process produces a one-of-a-kind, direct positive image on a sensitized silver-clad copper plate.
The Portrait Gallery’s first photographic acquisition was actually a daguerreotype gifted in 1965, three years before the museum was opened to the public. It was a portrait of poet, painter, and sculptor Thomas Buchanan Read, made by Marcus Aurelius Root. Read in turn has an equestrian portrait of Union army general Philip Sheridan exhibited in the Civil War galleries of the museum. Today, the museum is home to over 150 daguerreotypes of individuals with exceptional and diverse achievements, such 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.
The daguerreotype portraits are part of over 23,000 pieces and important portraits housed in the Portrait Gallery. Among these are the prized glass plate negatives by Matthew Brady, and the acclaimed 1843 image of President John Quincy Adams by artist Philip Haas, acquired in 2017 and on permanent display in the America’s Presidents gallery.
“These daguerreotypes are remarkable artifacts from the dawn of American photography,” said Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs. “Each is truly, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said, a ‘mirror with a memory.’”
The exhibit will be on display on the National Portrait Gallery’s first floor until June 2, 2019.
Image Credit: Dorothea Lynde Dix by Unidentified Artist, half-plate daguerreotype, c. 1849. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution