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.

3 thoughts on “National Portrait Gallery acquires earliest known photo of a First Lady

  1. what a delightful and important acquisition…as a DAR member historic preservation is one of our most important tasks…and so fun to actually see what Dolley looked like…

  2. Somebody from my Middle Franconian village was killed as major-general in the battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780, and that was three meager decades before Madison’s presidency 😲️

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