Auctions | July 2, 2024

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Acquires Recently Discovered Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison


Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison 

Believed to be the earliest extant photographic portrait of a First Lady, the daguerreotype was the subject of fierce competition in Sotheby’s' latest sale of Fine Books and Manuscripts, Including Americana, and sold for ten times its estimate at $456,000. It is the most valuable American daguerreotype ever sold at auction.

It is one of very few surviving photographs of the woman who defined what it means to be the First Lady of the United States of America, and will now join the museum’s 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas – the first known photograph of a U.S. President – which was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from Sotheby’s in 2017.

Probably created in early 1846 by John Plumbe, Jr., the portrait captures Madison aged 78 when she was a key figure in Washington society, nearly 30 years after her late husband James Madison served as the fourth U.S. President and a decade after she was widowed in 1836. This image is one of the few surviving photographs of Madison. Initially attributed to Mathew Brady, new research uncovered by Sotheby’s specialists attribute the actual maker as enterprising John Plumbe, Jr., a leading figure in American photography.
The House of Representatives awarded Dolley Madison an honorary seat on the floor whenever she chose to attend sessions – a privilege never granted before to a woman – and in 1844, when Samuel Morse demonstrated his invention of the electric telegraph, he chose Dolley Madison to send the first private message. On her death in 1849, thousands lined the streets to observe the procession, the largest funeral the city had ever seen. President Zachary Taylor's eulogy coined the term 'First Lady'.