What you see: An 1851 daguerreotype of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum in its original metal case, shot in Cincinnati, Ohio by Thomas Faris. Sotheby’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.
The expert: Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s.
Where was P.T. Barnum in his career in 1851? He was already very well-established by this time. He made his first mark in the 1830s when he invested in a woman named Joice Heth, who was said to be 136 years old and the nurse of George Washington. That was his first humbug, as he’d call it. He discovered Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb, in the 1840s. By 1850 and 1851, he set his sights larger than America. He was bringing acts from Europe to the United States. [Swedish singer] Jenny Lind was unknown [in America] until Barnum invested in her. It’s hard to equate the campaign to a modern campaign for an artist. He invested $150,000 in her and borrowed heavily to pay her costs up front. He ended up selling more than $700,000 in tickets. [Both numbers reflect 1850s dollar amounts, not contemporary updates.] He was clearly successful at this point.
Did Barnum have any daguerreotypes taken of Jenny Lind at the same time? Yes. There’s a portrait of Jenny Lind at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and one in the Cincinnati Art Museum. She returned to Cincinnati at the end of 1851 [so the photo may have been shot during her second 1851 visit]. Barnum was in Cincinnati from April 14 to April 22, 1851. Faris’s studio was right around the corner from where Jenny Lind performed and the hotel they were staying at. Everything was very walkable.
This is the second P.T. Barnum daguerreotype to come to auction. Does that imply that he rarely sat for photos? Most of what exists is [dated] a little bit later, or they’re paper photos made after daguerreotypes or etchings. In his own writing about himself, he was not someone who talked about sitting for artists or photographers. His museum burned down twice, and his mansion, I’m pretty sure it burned down twice as well [implying that other photos of Barnum might have been lost to fire]. But in his 1854 autobiography, there’s a frontispiece that an artist made after a daguerreotype of Barnum. Barnum didn’t seem to retain any copyright. The fact that he allowed his image to be used any which way says he embraced photography.
Faris’s services would not have come cheap, and it’s hard to imagine Barnum paying a premium to have a photo shot of himself alone, rather than with one of his performers, which he could use to promote his shows. Why might he have sat for this daguerreotype? Faris may well have solicited the opportunity to photograph Barnum. An artist who’s recently had a notable figure in their studio is an advertisement in an age when they didn’t have digital advertising. Who you photographed was your calling card. I don’t know what the expense would have been for a portrait, or what the finances would have been. When the tickets were sold for the Lind tour, they were by public auction. They was a block of less expensive tickets for the masses, but others paid several hundred for tickets. In the Philly leg, [a high sum was bid] by a daguerreotypist who clearly wanted to have an in with Lind or Barnum.
How do we know the daguerreotype shows P. T. Barnum? There are several identifying clues to the sitter’s identity. Most interesting is the tie tack with the starburst design on it. That same design was worn by Barnum in the best-known images of him, in his autobiography and in another photo from 1951 known as a later cabinet card. [The image at the top of Barnum’s Wikipedia page shows him wearing the starburst tie tack.] Then, of course, the face. The enlarged ears and certain heavyset wrinkles are also great clues. He’s generally shown clean-shaven, but not exclusively. It’s hard to speculate why he preferred one style over another. His hair, through his life, was rather unruly and was something he did not address. Especially above his ears, he has great wavy curls even through to when he was an older man.
This is described as a quarter plate daguerreotype. How big is a quarter plate? It’s four and a half inches by three and one-quarter inches, cut down from a whole plate that measured eight and a half inches by six and a half inches. In the printed catalog, we reproduce the daguerreotype at actual size. It would lay quite well in your hand.
What is the P.T. Barnum daguerreotype like in person? To hold a really great daguerreotype in person is to have a world of detail available to you. You can see the texture of his jacket, the folds of his clothing, and you can make out individual hairs on his head. The clarity is really hard to render in a digital format. It comes to life when you have it in front of you. You really see him looking back at you.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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