I: Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century

Part One: 19th-Century Materials

Installation view of Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century (2020-02)The Davis Museum at Wellesley College

19th-century materials

The process of early photography involved a great deal of time, labor, and costly materials.  Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century, an exhibition on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College from February 7 until December 13, 2020, explored the materiality, the craft, and the event of photography in its earliest iterations. Part 1 of 3, this virtual version of the exhibition focuses on 19th-century photographic materials, which shaped the public and private function of portraits.

Portrait of a Family (1860s) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Chemistry, in combination with a range of materials (silver-coated copper, glass, tin, or paper), created specific aesthetic and haptic effects that informed how individuals viewed, handled, and spoke about their photographs.

Housed in layers of protective casing, the silvery daguerreotype was a precious family keepsake, while the inexpensive and durable tintype could be widely exchanged, collected, or even carried into battle.

Portrait of a Woman (1860s) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College


daguerreotype is a polished copper plate, coated in silver and sensitized with
iodine. After exposure to light, the plate is treated with mercury vapors and
the image fixed by a salt bath.

When introduced in 1839, the technique was hailed an immediate success—its silvery, mirror-like image, enchanting.

La Daguerreotypomanie (Daguerreotypomania) (1839) by Théodore MaurissetThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Commentators marveled at the ability to capture detailed outdoor scenes.

“Just think, it is the sun itself, as the all-powerful agent of an entirely new art,” one art critic wrote.

Two Men with Rolled Shirtsleeves (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Advances in lenses and sensitizing agents brought the exposure time down from half-an-hour to just under a minute, making the daguerreotype suitable to portraiture.

Case with Four Portraits (Mid-19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College


1851, Frederick Scott-Archer invented the wet collodion process, in which a glass plate is
coated with collodion and
potassium iodine and sensitized with silver nitrate to create a negative that
can be reprinted as a positive image on paper.

In an ambrotype, the plate is bleached and blackened on the back (with varnish or other dark material such as velvet) so that the image on the glass appears as a positive.

Like the daguerreotype, the ambrotype is a unique print not subject to duplication. Despite its reduced exposure time and sharper detail, many of the same conventions from the Daguerreian-era still held true.

The sitter’s body was held steady with uncomfortable posing stands and head clamps. Darker clothes, able to absorb light, made for better tonal effects. A focus on capturing the likeness of the sitter’s bust or face—however dour—prevailed.

Presidential Campaign Button with Portraits of Ambraham Lincoln (recto) and Hannibal Hamlin (verso) (1860) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College


the ambrotype, the
tintype utilizes the wet collodion
process to create a negative image that appears as a positive when developed on
a thin plate of lacquered tin.

Stored in albums, sent across the continent, and worn as pins, the tintype mobilized photography in new ways.

Portrait of Two Men (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Because the material was less precious, and the exposure time much shorter (around 5 seconds), many began to relax the rules of propriety that had governed facial and bodily expressions in the Daguerreian-era portrait studio.

Portrait of a Man and Woman (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Camera operators embraced the theatricality of the studio, building elaborate and whimsical displays for their patrons’ amusement.

Mme. de Cusani (ca. 1860) by André Adolphe-Eugène DisdériThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Cartes de visite

1854, André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
invented a device with four rotating lenses that could fit onto a camera to
create 6, 8, or 10 exposures on a single glass plate. The small positive paper
proofs were then cut and mounted as calling cards (2.5 x 4 in.), or cartes
de visite.

This rare example of an uncut sheet from Disdéri’s studio demonstrates the range of poses, props, and even hairstyles that a single sitter might explore while having her portrait made.

Portrait of a Girl (19th century) by Rennie J. SmithThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Patrons ordered between 12 and 100 copies of their portraits to share with acquaintances in a new fad known as “cartomania.”

With the new format, painted backdrops and accessories became more elaborate, shifting the focus from the face to full-figure views.

Portrait of a Man and a Woman (19th century) by Conat's Riverside GalleryThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Cabinet cards

the fad for cartes de visite
declined in the second half of the 1860s, photographers actively sought new
formats to maintain public demand for portraiture.

“It cannot be that people have enough photographs, and that our art is on a decline,” one contributor to The Philadelphia Photographer wrote, “for as long as human nature possesses a bump of vanity, and as long as the love for another continues, so long will photographs be in demand.”

Occupational Portrait of Two Women and a Dog (19th century) by Rose & SonThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

The answer was a new size. First created by F. R. Window in London in 1866, the cabinet card (4.25 x 6.5 in.) was more symmetrical and larger than the carte de visite.

Portrait of a Woman (19th century) by Carpenter Photograph RoomsThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

The larger cabinet card allowed for more ornate settings, accessories, and displays that enhanced the overall pictorial effect of the full-figure portraits.

Credits: Story

Curated by Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber '66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, this exhibition was made possible through the support of the Surf Point Foundation and with generous loans from Barbara and Peter Schultz. The exhibition is supported with funds given through the generosity of Linda Wyatt Gruber (Class of 1966) and Wellesley College Friends of art at the Davis.

To learn more about “cartomania” in relation to the cult of the celebrity in the 19th century, download the Davis app and explore the tour, “Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery.”

Credits: All media
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