Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Acquires the Earliest Known Portrait of a U.S. First Lady

The daguerrotype of Dolley Madison went for nearly 10 times its low estimate.

Courtesy Sotheby's.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has snagged the first known portrait of an American First Lady, buying the daguerreotype of Dolley Madison in its original leather case at Sotheby’s for $456,000, nearly 10 times its $50,000 low estimate. 

“This artifact will provide the Smithsonian another opportunity to tell a more robust American story and illuminate the vital role women like Madison have played in the nation’s progress,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian. 

Though the photograph has traditionally been attributed to Matthew Brady, the house said that new research indicates it was likely shot by John Plumbe, Jr. in early 1846. Plumbe arrived in the U.S. from England in 1821 and took up photography in 1840, ultimately establishing studios in seven cities before selling the business in 1847. He’s also credited with the earliest known photograph of the U.S. Capitol.

A lining inside the case indicates that it was “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New-York.”

A lining inside the case for an antique photo says it was manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York

Courtesy Sotheby’s.

“To see the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recognize its significance and to know it will be going to such a prestigious home, where it will sit alongside the earliest photo of an American President, which we at Sotheby’s were also privileged to handle—that for me is the icing on the cake,” said Emily Bierman, global head of photography for the auction house. The Smithsonian bought the 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas, the first known photo of a U.S. president, in 2017.

Madison was 78 when the photo was shot, in about 1846. Her husband, James Madison, had served as president from 1809 to 1817, during which time the Wednesday evening receptions she held at the White House were “the epicenter of Washington society,” according to the museum.

She gained a position never before awarded to a woman when the House of Representatives granted her an honorary seat, so she could attend sessions whenever she chose to do so. Inventor Samuel Morse chose her as the first person to send a message using his new electric telegraph in 1844. As the public lined the streets to view her funeral procession, president Zachary Taylor called her “the first lady of the land for half a century” in his eulogy, and the term “First Lady” remains in use today. 

It was a newsworthy week at Sotheby’s, which also sold the watercolor drawing for the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for $1.9 million, making it the most expensive piece of Potteriana ever sold. An extremely rare copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, meanwhile, fetched $4.3 million against a $1.8 million high estimate.

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