Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery

Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery

Bradys New Daguerreotype Saloon, New York, published June 11, 1853 in New York’s Illustrated Press, wood engraving on paper, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, AD/NPG.77.46

In November 1863, the illustrated magazine Harper’s Weekly published a profile on Mathew Brady’s most recent exhibition space, called the National Portrait Gallery. The author praises Brady as America’s preeminent portrait photographer:

Nowhere else can so extensive and in one sense so valuable a collection of art treasures be witnessed. For the last twenty years there has hardly been a celebrity in this country who has not been photographed here; and when the history of American photography comes to be written, Brady, more than any other man, will be entitled to rank as its Father. 

From 1844 until 1865, when his fortunes began to decline, Brady’s various galleries in New York City and Washington D.C. were the places to see and be seen. Brady amassed a collection of both painted and photographic portraits of contemporary politicians, actors, writers, socialites, circus performers, inventors, and entrepreneurs to be admired on the walls of his gallery, collected as cartes de visite in photo albums, and emulated by the studio’s middle-class patrons.

A unifying project during the years preceding the Civil War, Brady proposed that the nation’s history be told through the biographies of America’s most illustrious leaders, thinkers, and heroes. He fostered a cult of celebrity that was already on the rise in the nineteenth century. Today, Brady might be dismayed to realize that many of the era’s leading personages have fallen into historical oblivion. In this tour, you can read biographies of the familiar—or the forgotten—celebrities who appear in the nearby selection of cartes de visite from Brady’s studios.

This tour was developed by Stephanie Fan ’22 and Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography.