The Romantic painter, showman, and entrepreneur Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre first showed his newly invented art in January 1839 and revealed the steps in his process that August. Each daguerreotype—as he dubbed these first photographs—was a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine, exposed in a camera, and developed in mercury fumes. In the following decade and a half, the craze for daguerreotypes spread around the world like wildfire, with countless artists and artisans producing millions of portraits for a clientele that had never dreamt of leaving their likenesses for posterity.
This portrait, likely showing the composer Frédéric Brisson, was either made by Gustave Le Gray, the central figure in French photography of the late 1840s and 1850s, his protégé Auguste Mestral, or someone in their circle at the home of Mestral. Brisson’s dandyish attire and relaxed demeanor—and, more important, his engagement with the photographer and therefore the viewer—make this image an especially compelling portrait, unlike so many daguerreotype portraits characterized by stiff poses and deer-in-the-headlights expressions.