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Famous faces by 19th century photographer Mathew Brady.

WHEN Abraham Lincoln arrived in the nation's capital on Feb. 23, 1861, to prepare for his upcoming inauguration, one of his first stops was the Pennsylvania Avenue gallery of the most famous and prestigious photographer in America-Mathew Brady. It was there that the President-elect sat for his first Washington portraits and, in so doing, joined countless other men and women--celebrities and common citizens alike--whose enthusiastic patronage emphatically helped underscore Brady's unparalleled achievement as a maker and marketer of photographic portraits.

By the time of Lincoln's inaugural, Brady was at the very peak of his career. His handsomely appointed galleries in New York and Washington attracted a steady stream of customers, from princes to presidents. Their visits afforded them the opportunity to have their portraits expertly made by one of Brady's highly skilled operators and to view at their leisure the hundreds of likenesses of prominent personalities that adorned the gallery walls.

While many photographic studios of the period attracted patrons by displaying portraits of the famous, Brady's collection was indisputably the largest and most comprehensive. Representing nearly every significant figure in American life since the dawn of photography, it included not only politicians and military heroes, but religious leaders, writers, artists, entertainers, and eminent foreign visitors--any personality of interest to the public. Even beyond its use as a publicity tool, Brady's collection served to manifest his sense of historical mission as well. " From the very first," he told an interviewer in 1891, "I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers."

With the American introduction of the small-format, card-mounted photographic print known as the carte de visite, Brady found the means to bring his collection of celebrity portraits to a vastly greater audience than ever could have visited his New York or Washington galleries. Developed in Europe in the late 1850s and popularized in the U.S. during the 1860 elections, the carte de visite--named for its similarity in size to a calling card--was relatively cheap to produce, inexpensive to collect, and, as such, led to the rapid growth of a mass market for these affordable photographic likenesses of men and women of note. When the vogue for collecting such images took hold, Brady was positioned perfectly to respond to the demand. His existing collection of celebrity portraits was pre-eminent, and his reputation for excellence regularly attracted to his studios luminaries from every quarter.

When the outbreak of the Civil War brought a burgeoning demand for portraits of the people in the news, Brady served as the source not only for current images of the major figures in the North, but often could produce a southern likeness as well. To meet the extraordinary demand for portraits that continued throughout the war, he furnished thousands of negatives directly to E. & H. T. Anthony and Co. in New York--the nation's largest photographic supply house--which printed the negatives on a mass-production basis and marketed the resulting cartes de visite via a nationwide distribution network. The revenues derived from this business were Brady's primary source of income and were used by him to support the corps of photographers he equipped and sent into the field to document the events of the conflict.

The Civil War years marked the turning point in Brady's career. Never a good businessman and already in chronic financial difficulty by 1860, he emerged from the war both deeply in debt and with his studio organization in a shambles. A popular market never had developed for the haunting, often stunningly graphic images of war whose production totally had consumed Brady's energies and resources for the last four years. In a vain attempt to recover his losses and pay his debts, he tried to sell his photographic collection to the U.S. government, but was unsuccessful.

Forced by bankruptcy to close his New York gallery in 1873, he forfeited a substantial portion of his negatives to E. & H. I Anthony in payment of outstanding debts for photographic supplies. He lost still more of his negatives when he proved unable to pay the bills for their warehouse storage. These negatives subsequently were seized and sold at auction, where the successful bidder was, ironically, the U.S. War Department. Although Congress ultimately was persuaded to authorize payment to Brady for full title to the War Department negatives, the money came too late to aid him in retaining his negatives and was insufficient to alleviate his staggering debts.

Brady remained active in photography until very late in life, but spent his final years in reduced circumstances, never regaining his former prominence. In 1896, ever hopeful of reviving his fortunes, he planned an exhibition of Civil War images drawn from what remained of his personal collection. Just two weeks before the exhibition's scheduled opening, however, he died, virtually penniless, in a New York hospital.

The Meserve Collection

Frederick Hill Meserve first became interested in historical photographs while searching for images with which to illustrate the Civil War memoirs of his father, a Union army veteran. In 1897, he purchased a small packet of salt print photographs for $1.10 at a New York auction house and thereby embarked on a course that ultimately led him to amass one of the largest and most important private collections of historical 19th-century American photographs. The core of this collection was a large group of Mathew Brady carte de visite negatives, which Meserve purchased in 1902, still in their original wooden storage boxes, from Anthony, Scovill and Co., the successor firm to E. & H. T. Anthony, which had acquired the negatives from Brady. Meserve, a dedicated amateur historian, spent the remainder of his life working with these negatives, organizing and studying them as well as printing them to produce the illustrations for Historical Portraits--his privately published 28-volume iconography of notable 19th-century American subjects. When Meserve died at the age of 96, his extensive collection was inherited by his daughter, Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, who shared her father's passion for the material and continued his work.

In 1981, with the assistance of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery acquired a group of more than 5,400 Meserve Collection negatives from the Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt Trust. These original collodion glass-plate negatives, nearly all made in either Brady's New York or Washington galleries, comprise a remarkably comprehensive pictorial index of the prominent personalities of the Civil War era, including Lincoln and many of his contemporaries. With the acquisition of this portion of the original Meserve Collection, the National Portrait Gallery joined the Library of Congress and the National Archives as a major repository for original Brady negatives.

An exhibition, "Lincoln and His Contemporaries: Photographs by Mathew Brady from the National Portrait Gallery," may be seen at the Elmhurst (Ill.) Historical Museum through March 7. It then will travel to the Tullahoma (Tenn.) Fine Arts Center (March 27-May 9); Colorado Springs (Colo.) Pioneers Museum (Dec. 4-Jan. 16, 1994); Museum of Arts and History, Port Huron, Mich. (Feb. 5-March 20,1994); and Kentucky Museum, Bowling Green (April 9-May 22, 1994).
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Author:Shumard, Ann M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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