The Daguerreotype in America

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While in Paris in the spring of 1839, engaged in securing a patent on his telegraphic apparatus, Professor S. F. B. Morse became deeply interested in what he heard of the brilliant experiments of M. Daguerre, whose genius and perseverance had just brought to perfection one of the most important and astonishing discoveries of the age. An artist, as well as a scientist, Professor Morse was naturally anxious to hear more of this new art of painting with sunbeams, especially as he himself had made experiments to ascertain if it was possible to fix the image of the camera obscura, and had given the matter up as impracticable.

Having completed all arrangements in regard to his telegraph, Professor Morse had already made his plans to leave Paris for home, when, in conversation with the American Consul, Mr. Robert Walsh, he one morning remarked, "I do not like to go home without first having seen Daguerre's results." The consul thought the matter might be easily arranged, and suggested that Professor Morse invite M. Daguerre to see his telegraphic apparatus, in return for which courtesy M. Daguerre would doubtless invite Professor Morse to see his pictures.

The plan was, of course, entirely successful. Morse and his marvellous scientific achievements were already matters of European reputation, and M. Daguerre naturally lost no time in responding to the distinguished request. Immediately following this exchange of civilities, Professor Morse had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful results of the new discovery at the Diorama, where M. Daguerre had his laboratory, and where he gave frequent exhibitions of his pictures to the foremost scientific men of the day.

These pictures, the extreme beauty of which had surprised and delighted all who beheld them, bore no resemblance to anything that had been theretofore known; and the striking mystery about them was that they should have been produced by a clever manipulation of the forces of nature rather than by the artist's pencil. Except in the absence of color, they presented, on a highly polished plate, absolutely perfect images of the objects represented. In fact, such was their perfection and fidelity, that, on examining them by microscopic power, details were discovered which were not perceivable to the naked eye in the original object, but which, when searched for with optical instruments, were found in complete accordance with those of the picture. The pictures were mostly views of streets, boulevards, and buildings, those of the Louvre and Notre Dame being especially fine. Interiors, still life, groups of plaster casts, and other works of art were also most successfully treated by the new process. Daguerre had not succeeded in making portraits as yet, and he told Professor Morse that he doubted if it could be done.

Professor Morse's enthusiasm over these daguerreotypes was scarcely less than that which he felt for his beloved telegraph. He wrote concerning them, that the exquisite minuteness of the delineation could not be described; that no painting or engraving ever approached them; and that the impressions of interiors were Rembrandt perfected. Unfortunately, the very next day, while Daguerre was with Professor Morse, witnessing the operations of his telegraph, the Diorama burned to the ground with all the beautiful specimens that Professor Morse had seen there the day before.

Professor Morse had been obliged to content himself with the mere sight of these charming exponents of the new art, as M. Daguerre was keeping the process a profound secret until such a time as it should be definitely decided whether or not the French Government would purchase the invention and make it a royal gift to the civilized world,—a point then under consideration.

There was a loud demand from the scientific public for an explanation of the discovery. For many years the search for a method of fixing the image of the camera obscura—an instrument known for nearly two centuries—had been diligent and persistent. The most important experimentation latterly had been that done in France by Niepce and Daguerre. For at least fifteen years Niepce, in entire ignorance of what Daguerre and other scientists had been doing, had been vainly endeavoring to catch the images of the camera obscura, when, in 1829, he met Daguerre, and they decided to reveal to each other the secrets of their individual methods and share alike in whatever material benefits might accrue.

On the recommendations of Daguerre, Niepce substituted iodine for the varnish which he had evolved, after years of experiment, to use on the silver plate. This film of iodine, which failed in the hands of Niepce, became the foundation of Daguerre's success, and having once obtained a material so sensitive to the action of light, the French artist overcame all other difficulties with which he had been surrounded. In the midst of these interesting researches Niepce died, in 1833, and his son afterwards succeeded to the partnership. He, however, pursued his father's process, without making any essential improvements, while Daguerre brought his own to such perfection that, after twenty years of unceasing labor, he was enabled to enter upon a life of continued triumph.

No sooner were Daguerre's pictures exhibited than scientific men the world over hastened to examine them, and it is safe to say that no previous discovery had awakened a more universal interest. Journals and periodicals were given up to exploiting, the subject, and certain issues were delayed, in order to obtain more complete accounts of the famous "sun pictures." As an invention it was ranked in importance with the steam engine, and the most exaggerated panegyrics from poet and scientist alike were the order of the day.

M. Arago, the famous astronomer whose great discoveries on light entitled him to the confidence of the inventor, was intrusted with Daguerre's secret, and with that ardent devotion to science and to the interest of its cultivator which so often and splendidly characterizes scholars, he resolved that while France had the honor of so great a discovery, it should also have the higher glory of rewarding and honoring the discoverer and of making the discovery a present to the entire world; and he succeeded in persuading the French Government to give Daguerre an annual pension of 6,000 francs ($1,200) and Niepce one of 4,000 francs ($800) on condition that they publish their process.

The bill received the unanimous assent of both houses, and was signed by King Louis Philippe on the 15th of June, 1839. So great was the public interest in the event that when, in August, 1839, Arago published the discovery, in a paper read before the Academy of Sciences, every place was taken two hours before the time announced for the reading to begin, and upwards of 200 persons who could not obtain admittance remained in the courtyard of the Institute.

As soon as the resolution to purchase the invention and make it public had been passed by the French Chamber, Daguerre hastened to put Professor Morse, who in the meantime had returned to America, in possession of all the knowledge necessary to manipulate the delicate process, and the professor lost no time in beginning to experiment practically with the art. His brothers Sidney E. and Richard C. Morse had a room with a glass roof erected on the roof of their new building at the northwest corner of Nassau and Beekman Streets, New York, and in this "palace of the sun," as they called it, made an American home for the new art. Until this room was ready for occupancy, Professor Morse continued his experiments with great success at the University of New York, in Washington Square. His first entirely successful picture was a view of the Unitarian Church, from the window on the staircase of the third story of the University. This was taken in September, 1839, and was without doubt the first daguerreotype ever taken in America. The time of exposure was fifteen minutes.

By the time Morse was fairly started, the process as published in Paris had reached the United States. Arago had read his paper to the Academy of Sciences in August, and the first published description of the Daguerre process which came to us was the summaries of this address published in the London newspapers. The Paris journals soon arrived with the paper in full, which was, of course, at once translated; and at the same time came the descriptive letters of the Paris correspondents.

These descriptions were so clear that any one could follow them, and hundreds were doing so, when in the fall of 1839 a teacher direct from M. Daguerre himself arrived in New York, M. François Gouraud by name. M. Gouraud, having come over expressly to give lectures on the process, brought with him the most improved French apparatus, as well as many pictures made by the master and his followers. These pictures were placed on exhibition, and on opening day the élite of the city were invited to view them. All who saw them were enraptured. Philip Hone wrote a long paragraph in his diary on the marvel of the discovery. "It appears to me not less wonderful," said he, "that light should be made an active operating power in this manner than that some such effect should be produced by sound; and who knows whether, in this age of invention and discoveries, we may not be called upon to marvel at the exhibition of a tree, a horse, or a sheep produced by the human voice muttering over a metal plate, prepared in the same or some other manner, the words 'tree,' 'horse,' and 'sheep.' How greatly ashamed of their ignorance the bygone generations of mankind ought to be!"

The "Knickerbocker"—Washington Irving's magazine—came out with nearly two pages of its December number devoted to the daguerreotype. "We have seen the views taken in Paris by the daguerreotype," the editor says, "and have no hesitation in avowing that they are the most remarkable objects of curiosity and admiration in the arts that we ever beheld. Their exquisite perfection almost transcends the bounds of sober belief. Let us endeavor to convey to the reader an impression of their character. Let him suppose himself standing in the middle of Broadway, with a looking-glass held perpendicularly in his hand, in which is reflected the street, with all that therein is, for two or three miles, taking in the haziest distance. Then let him take the glass into the house, and find the impression of the entire view, in the softest light and shade, vividly retained upon the surface. This is the daguerreotype. The views themselves are from the most interesting points of the French metropolis. Who would throw up their business and their dinners, on a voyage to see Paris or London, when one can sit in an apartment in New York and look at the streets, the architectural wonders, and the busy life of each crowded metropolis?"

A few months later the "Knickerbocker," in commenting again on the daguerreotype, pronounced it "an instrument destined ultimately, we believe, to be the companion of every man of taste, particularly in his travels"—a prophecy which we now see fulfilled in the later photograph.

M. Gouraud had little trouble in carrying through his course of lectures. Many people attended them, and he fitted out a large number with apparatus for the practice of what he had been teaching. In March, 1840, he went to Boston, and his season there was very successful. Finally he published a pamphlet: "A Description of the Daguerreotype Process, or a Summary of M. Gouraud's Public Lectures, according to the principles of M. Daguerre; with a description of a provisory method for taking Human Portraits."

This "provisory method" of taking portraits was not a simple method, as one can see from Gouraud's directions for preparing the room and the subject: "In the first place, you will begin by preparing a room exposed to the sun, the southeast if possible. You will give to this room the form of a truncated pyramid lying down, of which the base will be the whole breadth of the window—which window you will make as large as possible, and extending from the floor to the ceiling. The floor, the ceiling, and the two sides of the room should be plastered with the whitest kind of lime plaster. Those who cannot dispose a room in this manner, can fix the sides of the room with sheets, or other cloth of perfect whiteness. The focus of the room must be covered with a tapestry of white cotton, with knotted or raised figures, which is designed from the drapery. Those are always agreeable to the eye, and should always be shown in interior views. The chair on which the person sits must be of yellow wood. The person, if a man, must be dressed in a clear gray coat; pantaloons of a little deeper hue; a vest of a fancy ground,—yellow, orange, if possible,—with figures of a color to make a contrast; the whiteness of the shirt contrasting with a cravat of a gray ground either a little less dark or more deep than the coat. The toilet of a lady should be of the same shades, and in all cases black must be constantly avoided, as well as green and red."

M. Gouraud was not by any means the first person to attempt portraits in the United States. Notwithstanding the sceptical attitude of Daguerre in regard to the application of the art to living objects, Morse soon began to experiment with portraits, though it is interesting to note that in all his early attempts the subject's eyes are closed, that being considered one of the conditions essential to success. Morse's first experiments were with his daughter, taken singly or in a group with her young friends, in the full sunlight, with the eyes closed. The time of exposure was from ten to twenty minutes. He soon after made arrangements to experiment with his eminent friend and colleague, Professor John W. Draper, building for the purpose a photographic studio on the top of the University, and here Professor Draper claims to have made the first successful portrait ever made in America. This distinction is, however, often accredited to Mr. E. A. Wolcott, who was working along the same lines. Neither possessed any knowledge of the labors of the other, but results similar in character were arrived at by each operator, under slightly differing circumstances. Before M. Gouraud left for America a method had been found for taking the eyes fairly well, and it was this he applied in his lessons.

To realize to-day what the discovery meant, one must recall the means of portraiture then in existence; the brush, the pencil, and the engraver's tools were all of them. And as the operation of these depended on a skilful human hand, the product was limited and correspondingly expensive. The daguerreotype, however, was comparatively inexpensive, and any one could use the process who would give it attention. The simplicity of the operation, the mystery as well as the beauty of the result, the endless opportunity it offered—all this appealed to the ingenuity and imagination of young Americans of the intelligent class, and far and near they fell to daguerreotyping.

The way in which intelligent young men put the description of the process to test at once is charmingly told in a private letter to the author of this article by the Rev. Edward Everett Hale:

"My classmate and dear friend, Mr. Samuel Longfellow (who died last year), and I were both much interested, and he repeated Talbot's experiments at once. I took from my window in Massachusetts Hall a picture of the college library—Harvard Hall—opposite me. The camera was a little camera made for the convenience of draughtsmen, with a common lens of an inch and a quarter. We were delighted, because, in a window of the building which 'sat for us,' a bust of Apollo 'came out' so distinctly as it did. It came out dark brown—all the lights and shades being marked. . . .
"The French Government paid Daguerre a handsome sum for his invention, and the whole detail was at once published in the 'Journal des Debats.' My father published the 'Boston Daily Advertiser,' so that he received the 'Debats' regularly, and my mother at once translated this article for the 'Advertiser.' You will find it a few weeks after the official publication in Paris. I now have the machine, or part of it, which I made, with my cousin, the late Mr. Francis A. Durivage, a well-known litterateur of New York, from these descriptions.
"Daguerre sent agents all over the world, or they came with his authority. François Gouraud came to Boston, and brought letters to my father. Mr. Francis Colby Gray, a leader in affairs of art in Boston, one of the directors of Harvard College, interested himself greatly in Gouraud, and arranged for him a class which met in the sacred precincts of the Massachusetts Historical Society. To say this in the Boston of that day, was as if you said the class met in the queen's private apartments at Windsor. Gouraud imported the apparatus and sold it. He had specimens of Daguerre's work, two of which, I believe, I still own. He arranged, I think, in Connecticut, for the manufacture of plates.
"M. Gouraud was impecunious, and I suspect that my father used to lend him money. I wish now that he had bought apparatus instead. Instead of that, we youngsters had to make our apparatus, and did. Mr. Durivage and I made at least two sets, one of which I have a print of still.
"My first picture was of the church of which, queerly enough, I became a minister sixteen years after. It must have been in 1840 that, as soon as my work as a teacher in the Latin School stopped, I ran up to the corner of Castle Street and Washington Street, where we had borrowed a room. I prepared my plates a little larger than this sheet. I adjusted the camera, and then went on to the church and stood—eight minutes expired, I think—while my cousin took off the lens and put it on. I have often said, and I think it is true, that this was the first photograph of a man in Boston. I think Dr. Draper had taken many before this in New York. I am very sorry that I have not this plate. But plates cost us two dollars each. I was impecunious, as I have said, and after I had shown it to my friends, it took its turn under pumice stone and putty, and was ready for another picture.
"This picture may have been a special portrait of myself. Early in the business I sat with a mirror in my hands, in full sunshine. The mirror threw up the sun from below to abate the shadows. I sat in this light five minutes. The picture came out a capital portrait of my hair, ears, and chin. Alas! I had tipped my head too far back, and all that appeared were my projecting eyebrows and the orifices of both nostrils (no mouth, alas!), and the chin from below taking its place. So far as I know, this was the first portrait proper any of us ever attempted."

The commercial possibilities of the new invention were at once evident, and with Yankee shrewdness scores of young men learned the new art as a business. Morse and Draper themselves first gave the hint. As soon as it was known that they were making daguerreotypes many young men flocked to them for instruction. When they began to make portraits everybody wanted to sit. As both men had spent considerable money in experimenting with the process, they decided, finally, to charge for instruction and for portraits until they had recovered the outlay. But this was only for a short time, and as soon as the day of experiment was over, both took up other work.

By the end of 1840 the methods were sufficiently improved to justify practising them as a means of livelihood. Numerous galleries were opened in the cities, and the travelling-car penetrated into all parts of the country. By November, 1841, there were six studios in Boston, and a larger number in New York.

The interest and curiosity of the general public in regard to these pictures painted by nature's own hand is not to be described. A small frame containing a half dozen pictures exhibited at door or window was constantly surrounded by crowds of eager spectators, and the guesses hazarded as to the method of their production were interesting to a degree. Families vied with one another as to which could show the most finely executed and elaborately finished portraits, and the collection of daguerreotypes on the ubiquitous centre table formed the leading topic of conversation at social gathering and casual call.

At first nearly all pictures were taken by side windows. The first skylight was erected at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, New York, on the top of the Granite Building, still standing there; and soon thereafter "skylight pictures" became a distinguished feature in the advertisements of the day.

Monday was looked upon as the best day for business, a fact owing almost wholly to the Sunday night courtship, the first outcome of which was the promise to exchange daguerreotypes. No less sure than Monday itself came the gentleman escorting his sweetheart. He selected the most expensive cases, and paid for both pictures. And it was a happy man in these instances that put the maiden's picture, into his pocket, for he knew there was but one "counterfeit presentment" of her in existence, and he had it.

The discreet daguerreotyper was never without his bit of sticking-wax to keep wing-shaped ears from standing out, nor his wads of cotton, called "plumpers," to fill out the hollow cheeks.

The discovery of gold in California was a great boon to the daguerreotyper, as every embryo miner embarking for the golden shore must have several portraits taken to leave with his family and friends. And whether he was going across the Isthmus or around the Horn, he must be pictured with his entire kit—kettle, frying-pan, knife, fork, cup, pick-axe, shovel, and the invariable two revolvers in his belt. He must also carry with him pictures of parents, wife, children, and friends, destined often to become his sole companions in his rough mountain cabin, from which he would hardly part for all the gold in California.

Within eleven years from the time of the discovery, American daguerreotypers were the acknowledged leaders of the world, and numbered over 10,000. At the World's Fair in London in 1851 they were awarded the first prize for their unparalleled exhibition; and it was a common thing in England, France, and Germany to advertise to take daguerreotypes by the American process. Indeed, the best daguerreotypers in both London and Paris were Americans, Mayal and Thompson respectively.

The time of exposure had been reduced to a few seconds, and the price had settled into a regular scale of from one dollar and a half to fifteen dollars, depending upon the size—which varied from the locket size to thirteen by fourteen inches—and the case. The most ordinary size was two and three-quarters by three inches, the price for it varying from two to three dollars.

Some of the early daguerreotypers attained a national, even world-wide, reputation for the noble contributions they made, not only to the art, but to the history of the country. Conspicuous among such is the late M. B. Brady, a full record of whose life would read like a romance. His first studio was located in New York, in Fulton Street, at that time one of the principal thoroughfares. He afterwards moved to Broadway, near Prince Street; and, later still, "Brady's Famous National Gallery," at the corner of Tenth Street and Broadway, became widely known. He had also a studio in Brooklyn, and in 1860 opened a branch gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, which he finally made his headquarters. In 1861 Washington was thronged with men who were helping to make the history of America. Mr. Brady was far-seeing enough to realize this, and aimed to secure portraits of the most distinguished. In consequence he soon made his Washington gallery a celebrated rendezvous. He also sent out wagons for photographic use, which followed the army from place to place.

In the early days Gurney enjoyed no less reputation than Brady, and his daguerreotypes are still considered the finest specimens of the art in existence. Meade Brothers were distinguished as having, in the second story of the Astor House, the most spacious galleries in New York, and enjoyed the further distinction of being the only daguerreotypers in the world who had taken a portrait of Daguerre himself. Bogardus, Powelson, and Rickwell were also among the many well-known New York daguerreotypers of the early day, while Hale and French, Whipple and Black, Plum, and Southworth and Hawes were influential in giving Boston a leading position in the new art.

One of the earliest of the Boston galleries still exists, a dusty relic of the 40's. Any one who will take the trouble to climb three flights of stairs, at 19 Tremont Row, will find there the original studio of Southworth and Hawes, opened in 1841, and still presided over by Mr. Hawes, now a white-haired man of nearly ninety. In the old days, when this studio was opened, Tremont Row was the centre for the artists of the city. Here fully one-third of the portrait painters of Boston lived; here, too, were most of the sculptors, several engravers, and a goodly number of art-supply stores. In the building where Southworth and Hawes took their quarters, Greenough and Story both had studios, and in this same building Harriet Hosmer worked. All of the fraternity up and down the Row were deeply interested in the new discovery and were constant visitors at the gallery. Traversing Tremont Row to-day one would not dream that it had ever harbored skilled craftsmen and artists. Traffic and noise have crowded from it every sign of the finer pursuits of life. The most melancholy of commercial undertakings monopolize it—cheap bargain stores, employment bureaus, sweater shops. One remnant only of its former life remains, the ancient daguerreotype studio at the top of No. 19. Here are a half-dozen rooms furnished with ancient apparatus and appointments, and cluttered with the daguerreotypes and photographs of a half century of active work. For fifty-four years Mr. Hawes has practised his art in this place. Here have come to him for portraits the great men and women of his day in every profession and art—Webster and Pierce, Garrison and Sumner, Wendell Phillips and Jenny Lind, Charlotte Cushman and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mr. Hawes has in the specimens of his work an almost complete gallery of the eminent residents of Boston in the 40's and 50's and of the prominent people who visited the city in the same period. The collection is of rare historical interest, and should be kept intact in some Boston museum, though it is doubtful if any one else would give it the reverent care that its white-haired owner does. Mr. Hawes has also a number of daguerreotypes made recently, for he is one of the few operators who remain loyal to the old process, and he would gladly see it take its place again as a method of portraiture. There are signs, too, that it may do this. During the last year there has been, indeed, a distinct revival of interest in the daguerreotype in this country. And with the much better knowledge we now have of all the scientific and mechanical principles involved, it could hardly be taken up again as a serious pursuit without being carried to even finer execution than it formerly attained.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).