It's the First Photo of the 'First' First Lady

National Portrait Gallery acquires 1846 daguerreotype
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 9, 2024 12:53 PM CDT
It's the First Photo of the 'First' First Lady
Dolley Madison.   (Sotheby's)

The earliest photograph of a US president is an 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams that's in the possession of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. It will now be joined by the oldest known photograph of a first lady—the woman who inspired the use of the term for the first time. The National Portrait Gallery has acquired an 1846 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, who was at the time the 78-year-old wife of fourth US president James Madison. It was purchased from Sotheby's on June 28 for $456,000, some six times the expected top price of $70,000.

The Art Newspaper reports that President Zachary Taylor described Madison as "the first lady of the land for half a century" at her funeral; it was the first time the phrase "first lady" had been used in connection with a president's wife. She was "considered by many to have invented the role of First Lady," the site notes. "Her extroversion, intelligence and prowess as a hostess"—including the Wednesday night parties she helmed—"helped her husband create strategic political friendships and position the White House at the center of Washington society."

Sotheby's auction catalog described the image: "Likely made in the late winter or early spring of 1846 when photography was still in its infancy, this daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr., is believed to be the earliest photograph of a First Lady. It is one of exceedingly few surviving photographs of the woman who has defined for two centuries what it means to be the First Lady of the United States of America." The daguerreotype, the first publicly available photographic process, was invented in 1839. The image of Madison was recently found by its sellers during the process of cleaning out the basement of a deceased relative, reports the BBC. It notes that Plumbe also took the first known images of the US Capitol. (More first lady stories.)

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