National Portrait Gallery acquires earliest known photo of a First Lady

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a daguerreotype of Dolley Madison that is the first known photograph of a US First Lady. The recently-rediscovered portrait emerged from an East Coast private collection when it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York on June 28th. The National Portrait Gallery bought the picture for $456,000. Mrs. Madison’s image now joins the earliest surviving original photograph of a US President, an 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, acquired by the NPG in 2017.

The likeness of the former First Lady was taken by photographer John Plumbe Jr. in 1846 when Dolley Madison was 78 years old. We know from her visitors logs that Plumbe called on her at her Washington D.C. home on February 22, 1846. She likely visited his studio in the spring to have this portrait taken, as Plumbe displayed a portrait of Dolley Madison along with ones he had taken of Presidents James Polk, John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan in an exhibition in May of 1846.

An immigrant from England, Plumbe arrived in the United States in 1821 and worked as a surveyor and later a railroad engineer. He moved to Wisconsin in 1836 when it was still a territory, and he was the first person to advocate for a transcontinental railroad, lobbying through the Wisconsin territorial delegate. His lobbying bore rapid fruit and in 1838 Congress funded the construction of a railroad from Milwaukee to Mississippi, a key step in what would become the rail system linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States.

He turned to photography in 1840, a mere year after its invention by French chemist Louis Daguerre, as a means to finance his ambitious railroad plans. He was incredibly successful right away. By 1841 he had studios in three cities. By 1843 he had studios in eight cities. By the time Mrs. Madison sat for him, there were Plumbe studios in more than 18 cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The Plumbe National Daguerreian Gallery opened in Washington, D.C. in 1844. He was the first professional photographer in the capital. The same year Dolley sat for him, he also took the first known photographic images of the U.S. Capitol, capturing it with its original copper-clad wood dome which was basically a copy of the Pantheon’s in Rome, complete with oculus to let it in the light. (The much larger cast iron dome in place now was added in the late 1850s.)

The quarter plate daguerreotype of Dolley Madison captures her dark curls peeking out from under her turban, a signature look that she wore for decades. She wears a striped crocheted shawl over her dress, and the fine details stand out almost in 3D relief. A slight curl to her lip conveys the wit and humor that made Dolley such a glittering figure in Washington, D.C. society. People didn’t typically smile for pictures in those days, so her little wry grin stands out all the more.

The daguerreotype is still in its original case, an embossed burgundy leather with gilt details. Plumbe had a related business manufacturing daguerreotype cases, and the lining of this case is letterpressed with the manufacturing markings: “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York.”

Madison is credited with creating the role of First Lady as it is known today. Raised by a Quaker family in Philadelphia, she was naturally vivacious and outgoing, and she cultivated strategic friendships with male politicians and their wives. Prior to her husband James Madison’s presidency (1809–1817), she served as an honorary hostess for President Thomas Jefferson, which prepared her for taking on the role when her husband entered the office. The House of Representatives granted Madison an honorary seat on the floor whenever she chose to attend its sessions. Madison’s charisma and intelligence charmed the most hard-hearted politicians, making the lively Wednesday-night receptions she held at the White House the epicenter of Washington society. Her influence straddled political and social circles. At her funeral in 1849, President Zachary Taylor praised Madison as “the first lady of the land for half a century,” coining the term “First Lady” used today.

This unique daguerreotype of Madison is a significant portrait in American history, women’s history and the history of photography. The new acquisition joins the Portrait Gallery’s collection of nearly 230 portraits of First Ladies and more than 1,800 likenesses of U.S. Presidents.

Smithsonian acquires, digitizes largest collection of Charleston Slave Badges

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired 146 rare Charleston Slave Badges, the largest and most complete set known. It contains one badge for every year between 1800 and 1865, and the only two badges known that were stamped with the name of the enslaved person.

Almost half of all the enslaved Africans shippped to North America landed in South Carolina ports, many of them destined to backbreaking labor on the lowcountry rice plantations. Charleston became one of the richest countries in the world by raking in immense profits from the trade in and use of slave labor.

Some Charleston enslavers looked to amplify their profits by leasing out their enslaved skilled tradesmen. Porters, carpenters, mechanics, fruiters, blacksmiths, masons and more were contracted to work for private individuals and in infrastructure projects for the city with all profits of course going to the enslavers. Established in 1783 to distinguish enslaved people from free Black people, the city instituted a badge system. The leased slaves wore badges stamped with the badge number, the city, “Charleston,” the laborer’s professional and the year. Free Blacks had to register their status and wear badges as well. All badges had to be sewn into their clothing, then renewed yearly by the city clerk.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the collection in 2022 from Harry S. Hutchins, Jr., who had spent 30 years amassing these rare objects into a uniquely tangible testament to the skills of enslaved people who literally built Charleston. To share the history of these individuals with the world, the museum has digitized the badges and created a Searchable Museum with high-definition photographs of the badges and explanations of their contexts and historical significance.

“We are honored to share the story of enslaved African Americans who contributed to building the nation,” said Mary Elliott, NMAAHC museum curator. “It is a story that involves the juxtaposition of profit and power versus the human cost. The story sheds light on human suffering and the power of the human spirit of skilled craftspeople who held onto their humanity and survived the system of slavery, leaving their mark on the landscape in more ways than one.”

Through this digital offering, visitors can engage with the objects and learn about the legislated system of leased enslaved labor in Charleston, South Carolina, those who profited from the system and how enslaved African Americans navigated the landscape of slavery using their abilities, skills and intellect. In addition to providing the history of Charleston Slave badges, the new Searchable Museum feature will provide insight into collecting, archaeology, the role of vocational training and the meaning of freedom.

Mantua Ducal Palace brings 1528 Gonzaga tapestry home

A large “espalier” (horizontal) tapestry commissioned by a Gonzaga cardinal in 1528 has been acquired by the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Manufactured in Mantua by a Flemish master, the tapestry was offered at auction at Roseberys in London, and the Ducal Palace made the winning bid to bring the work home again. The final price including buyers premium was £15,744 ($20,000), a bargain considering the historical and artistic significance of the tapestry to Mantua.

An espalier tapestry is much wider than it is high. This one is almost 20 feet wide and 5’9″ high. It was created by Flemish emigré weaver Nicolas Karcher who moved to Mantua around the time this tapestry was made and took many commissions from the ruling Gonzaga family. It is one of the oldest examples of tapestries of Italian design made in Italy.

Art historians have found that it was sold in 1879 by an unknown Mantuan. It left Italy in 1969 and moved to the Isle of Jersey. It hasn’t been back to its homeland since, not even as a loan, which is particularly notable because the tapestry is an important piece and has been published both as part of a compendium of Gonzaga art in 1985 and as the subject of an in-depth study in 2010.

The tapestry is centered around the allegory of Justice. She stands in the middle of the wide field, holding the fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized magistral power in ancient Rome. On the left side, Saint Peter stands between the kneeling pope and Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. His identity is signaled by the Gonzaga coat of arms hanging on a tree. The pope is probably Clement VII as he had made Ercole Gonzaga a cardinal the year before the tapestry was woven. On the right side is Moses with horns (a depiction common the Renaissance based on a mistranslation of “rays” as “horns” in Exodus 34) presenting the tablets of the Ten Commandments to two figures, thought to be the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, kneeling at his side. The figures are set against a lush country landscape of hills, lakes and trees.

The newly-acquired tapestry will be going on display at the Castle of San Giorgio.

Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes restored

Donatello’s bronze sculpture group depicting Judith and Holofernes (1457-1464) has returned to public display after 10 months of restoration. The sculpture was unveiled Monday at the Sala dei Gigli (Gallery of the Fleurs-de-Lis) in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, cleaned and restored using the latest technology.

Donatello took an original approach to the subject of the young Jewish heroine who saved her city by cutting off the head of the Assyrian general besieging it. He was the first to include the figure of Holofernes. The subject at this time was usually presented as just Judith holding the general’s decapitated head. Donatello captured the moment in dynamic action, Judith with her arm raised and sword in hand ready for the kill while Holofernes’ body is trapped between her legs, his limbs dangling off the edge of the statue’s base. Three Bacchic reliefs adorn the sides of the base.

The bronze was commissioned by Piero de’ Medici with the motif of Judith’s defeat of Holofernes standing as a model of freedom against tyranny for citizens to follow in defense of the Florentine Republic. After the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1495, the government of the new Republic confiscated the sculpture and moved it to the Palazzo della Signoria, the new seat of government. Piero’s original inscriptions on the plinth — one extolling Judith as a symbol of humility’s triumph over pride and virtue’s over lust, the other exhorting citizens to follow her example in defending the Florentine Republic — were removed and a new one installed marking the date of the confiscation/liberation of the bronze from the personal property of the ruler to the patrimony of Florence.

It was moved several times over the next centuries and it was out in the elements. By 1980, the bronze had suffered severe deterioration, so it was permanently moved to the Sala dei Gigli in Palazzo Vecchio. At the time of the move, the statue was given its first scientific restoration, but it was the 1980s and the techniques used then haven’t aged well. The bronze darkened over time and the protective coating turned out to be a literal dust magnet, having an electrostatic charge that attracts dust and an adhesive property the glues it to the surface.

The new restoration began with a painstaking examination and documentation of the bronze. The statue was dusted to expose as much of the surface as possible. That surface was then analyzed with new samples taken and compared to the ones collected 40 years ago.

After the diagnostic process was complete, conservators set to work addressing the problems that were identified.

Detail of bronze panel at the base of the statue. Photo courtesy A. Quattrone, Friends of Florence.The findings revealed a need for a more complex approach to renew the restorative effects of the previous work, whilst also removing the products of slow corrosion processes on the metal’s surface. The recent work has benefitted from improved understanding of the material, as well as new laser-based technology to treat the metal without the disadvantages of mechanical or chemical cleaning techniques used in the past. This work has also revealed localized areas of gilding on the bronze, which provides important information for how this statue (and others like it) can be more effectively protected in the future.

Lost metal detectorist finds Bronze Age rapier

A metal detectorist who got separated from his group and walked to higher ground in the hope of finding them found a Middle Bronze Age hoard instead. John Belgrove paid £20 to join 50 people on this metal detecting rally in Dorset, but when he lost the people he gained the find of a lifetime valued at £17,000 but archaeologically priceless. His detector signaled as he was trudging to high ground, and just eight inches under the surface, he dug up what turned out to be the hilt of a rapier caked in clay. Then he found the blade broken in two sections. Then he found an axe head. Then he found a bangle.

The two-foot long rapier was buried with a palstave axe head and a decorated bracelet in a grave, a unique combination of valuable objects buried as a funerary offering for what must have been a wealthy individual. All three objects date to the Taunton phase (c.1400-1275 B.C.) of the Middle Bronze Age.

The rapier is cast bronze with a copper alloy hilt designed to imitate the wooden hilts of the period. It was broken in three pieces: the end of the blade snapped off and where the blade meets the c-shaped guard broken off in a jagged line. It was deliberately broken before burial. Only two similar examples have been found in Britain, and they are incomplete.

The palstave axe head is made of cast copper alloy and high side flanges and concave edges that flare into a rounded cutting edge. There are marks on the blade that may have been caused by use or in the finishing process.

The bracelet or arm-ring is copper alloy and decorated with a complex incised geometric pattern of transverse bands, herringbone bands and cable-style bands. It is a rare find on its own, and there is no known comparable example of a rapier, palstave and bracelet from the Taunton phase buried together.

The Dorset Museum and Art Gallery was keen to acquire this exceptional grouping and in November of last year, launched a crowdfunding campaign. With donations from the public and grants from non-profit trusts, it was able to raise the £17,000 valuation cost to acquire the Stalbridge Hoard. The hoard arrived at the museum on May 31st, and will undergo conservation and study before going on display.

Elizabeth Selby, director of collections at Dorset Museum, said: “This hoard is incredibly special. The rapier sword is really unusual because of the cast bronze handle. The bracelet decoration was quite unusual as well.

“There aren’t really any comparable objects like the rapier, so to be able to acquire these items is really important for us.

“Finds like this tell us about how people were travelling, meeting and exchanging ideas with others on the continent in the centuries before the Roman invasion.

“There was a farming community there and these people generated enough wealth to be able to barter for or exchange objects that others had made.”