Daguerreian Society

During this month (May) in the year 1869, the following article appeared 
in "Harper's New Monthly Magazine" (New York; Vol. XXXVIII, No. 
CCXXVIII, May 1869, pp. 787-9):
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by T. B. Thorpe



WHEN Daguerre made practical the art of taking portraits by the aid of 
sunlight and chemical combinations, Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Jackson 
were past the prime of life.  Two of them had wasted much time in 
sitting to artists; and if they had been captious men they could have 
told of long, dreary hours they had dreamily, and often miserably, 
passed in the studios of painters and sculptors.  In fact, Clay and 
Webster had been so much "persecuted" in this way that they were nervous 
at the very suggestion of the idea of entering an artist's studio.  
Calhoun was not a popular idol with the masses, and his immediate 
constituents seemed never to have taxed his patience much in endeavors 
to obtain his "counterfeit presentment." Jackson lived so much on the 
"frontiers" before he was President that he seemed to have had little 
experience with artists, if we may judge from the fact that he asked Mr. 
Powers, the sculptor, "how he was getting along with his portraits?" 
meaning busts.
  When these great men were in the very acme of their fame the 
daguerreotype came into vogue, and it was deemed a desirable thing to 
preserve their faces for posterity by the aid of the new process; and 
while they would probably have refused to sit long and weary hours and 
days to accomplish this desired object, they made no objection to giving 
a flitting moment of their valuable time for the purpose.
  Mr. Webster sat for his picture in the year l849 in the art-gallery 
corner of Fulton Street and Broadway, opposite St. Paul's Church.  He 
was the guest at the time of the Astor House, in which establishment he 
was by the proprietors treated with the most princely consideration.  He 
received the request to sit for his picture, after being informed it 
would only occupy a few moments of his time, with a prompt assent, and 
made no other remarks than were necessary to fix the time and place.  
Punctually to the moment, and unattended, he was at the gallery.  He was 
expected, and when he made his appearance his dignified presence, 
massive head, his large dark eye, and commanding political position 
almost paralyzed the then comparatively inexperienced workmen.  His 
style of dress was also calculated to attract attention, the prominent 
object of which was a blue dress-coat ornamented with richly-gilt 
buttons.  Under direction he quietly took his seat, and was as kindly 
disposed as a well-trained child.  It was more difficult in those days 
than now to take a picture, but Mr. Webster submitted with the greatest 
good-nature to every request, and at the proper moment was as motion-
less as a statue.  The picture, under such favorable circumstances, was 
soon obtained, and Mr. Webster, on being told that such was the case, 
his face brightened up with an expressive smile, and without other 
demonstration, except a formal bow; he left the gallery.
  Mr. Clay sat for his picture in New York in 1850, directly after he 
had announced himself in favor of the "Compromise Act" of that year.  
The attention he received from our citizens made it almost impossible to 
see him.  Mr. Clay, whose health was then beginning to decline, declared 
that he was overwhelmed with demands on his time.  His friends, however, 
were very urgent, and he finally decided that he would gratify their 
wishes, and appointed the morning of the day he was to have a public 
reception at the City Hall.  Mr. Matsell was then Chief of Police, and 
by his assistance the camera was taken to the Governor's Room, curtains 
were tacked up, and every thing arranged, Mr. Clay being present, and 
expressing himself relieved by the quietness of the room.  The crowd of 
people in the mean time outside of the building was becoming 
demonstrative, and the corridors of the City Hall were lively with 
noise.  At the very moment Mr. Clay was to sit "a committee" of some 
kind broke open the door into the refreshment-room, where a lunch was 
spread, and commenced helping themselves with the greatest freedom; from 
the lunch-room they came into the Governor's Room.  Clay acted with 
great presence of mind, by seeming to not notice the intrusion.  He was 
dressed with unusual care, for he had set apart some hour of the day for 
the especial reception of the ladies.  The fashion of the day for the 
neck was a high satin stock, with standing collar to match, which gave a 
singular stiffness to the whole costume.  When every thing was announced 
as in readiness Mr. Clay took his seat, surrounded by his host of 
admirers, who seemed wonderfully delighted with this "private view." For 
a moment it appeared as if the real object of the moment would be 
defeated.  Mr. Clay, however, suddenly waved his hand, which had the 
effect to command the utmost silence; then dropped both before him, one 
grasped within the other.  While the process of taking the picture 
continued, which was for some seconds, many of the spectators, 
unaccustomed to mental discipline, grew pale in their efforts to subdue 
their interest in what was going on, or from fear of being rude by some 
unfortunate interruption.  Mr. Clay all the while seeming to be 
perfectly at his ease; the blood flowed calmly through his cheek, his 
eyes beamed with peculiar intelligence, and his large, expressive mouth 
was firm but kindly disposed; he could not have been more self-possessed 
if alone in his study.  When the click of the instrument announced that 
the affair was ended, an enthusiastic but subdued demonstration was made 
by the spectators.  Mr. Clay took the hint, and gracefully rising, put 
every one at ease by commencing conversation with those persons, nearest 
to him, and he did this as if he had not been interrupted.  In a few 
moments the room was relieved of cameras and extra curtains, the doors 
were thrown open to the public, and then proceeded the last and probably 
the grandest reception Mr. Clay while living ever received in New York.
  Mr. Calhoun sat for his picture in Washington city in the year 1849--
less than two years before he died.  His hair, which in his younger days 
was dark, and stood so frowningly over his broad, square forehead, was 
now long, gray, and thin, and combed away from his face and fell behind 
his ears.  Mr. Calhoun was dressed in a suit of black, over which he 
wore a long cloak.  Nothing in human form could have exceeded his 
dignity of manner and impressive personal appearance that day.  He came 
promptly in accordance with his appointment, accompanied by his 
daughter, Mrs. Klempson.  The day was cloudy and unfavorable for the 
business proposed.  Mr. Calhoun seemed to feel this, but was at the same 
time very obliging, and, was constantly making some kind remark about 
any delay or accident that might occur.  The first trial, owing to the 
floating clouds and murky atmosphere, consumed some thirty seconds, 
which appeared to be a long time in a standing position.  Mr. Calhoun 
readily consented, however, to a second trial, which was perfected in 
ten seconds.  Mrs. Klempson, who delicately arranged at times her 
father's hair or the folds of his cloak, expressed her surprise at this, 
and said, "Father, how is it that your first picture, to make it, 
consumed so much more time than your second?" Mr. Calhoun resumed his 
seat while the plate was preparing for the third picture, and 
substantially replied that the art of taking pictures by the 
daguerreotype was a new process, and that while the results had deeply 
interested him, as indicative of great advantages to the social circle 
and all scientific pursuits, yet he did not feel competent to explain 
the exact method, and with these preliminary remarks he proceeded to 
open up the invention by an analytical disquisition and explanation that 
could not have been surpassed by the most accomplished expert; and all 
this was done in the simplest and clearest language, that fascinated and 
astonished the workmen in the gallery.  Mr. Calhoun sat the third time, 
and after expressing a great deal of pleasure at the announced success 
of his visit, and calling the attention of his daughter to some pictures 
on the walls, he left the gallery.
  General Jackson's picture was taken at the Hermitage in the spring of 
1845.  He was at the time a confirmed invalid, so much so that his death 
was a possible event at any moment.  Against the wishes of his 
household, who were only solicitous for his comfort, he would know who 
called upon him, and against the positive advice of his attending 
physician he persisted in gratifying those who had "come so far" by 
having his picture taken.  On the morning appointed he caused himself to 
be dressed with especial care, and bolstered up with pillows and 
cushions.  He was very determined in his manner, and would not listen to 
any denial.  At this time his hair, once such a remarkable steel-gray, 
and which then stood like a mass of bayonets round his forehead, was now 
soft and creamy white, and combed quietly away from his temples, and 
fell upon his shoulders.  When the moment came that he should sit still 
he nerved himself up with the same energy that characterized his whole 
life, and his eye was stern and fixed and full of fire.  The task 
accomplished, he relapsed into his comparatively helpless condition.  
When relieved from pain he was pleasant and courtly, yet never seemed to 
be entirely satisfied with the restraints imposed upon him as an 
  In looking through the camera glass into the eyes of these remarkable 
men, Webster's seemed to be dark and mysterious, where way down in 
profound depths were hidden strange mysteries.  Clay's was a light 
bluish-gray, and was always restless, the pupil of which seemed to be 
constantly trembling from the electrical effects of the controlling 
mind; it was fascinating, and caused you to look away from its 
concentrated gaze.  Calhoun's eyes were cavernous, they seemed so deeply 
set in his head, but there was a deep blue in their depths that appeared 
trembling with a threatening storm; and yet there was, for all this, 
inconsistent as it may seem, a wonderful sense of repose.  Jackson's eye 
was of a bluish-gray, dashed with yellow and red, that in his youthful 
days made it look so hot, red, and terrible.  It was ever trembling by 
the agitations it had been accustomed to, and was constantly changing, 
one moment stern and defiant, the next quiet and peaceful; the imperious 
was, however, always predominant.

Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

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