This commanding daguerreotype of Vice President, cabinet member, Senator, and Representative John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) was one of the most famous portraits Mathew Brady's studio produced. It served as the basis for the lithograph by Francis D'Avignon published in Brady's Gallery of Illustrious Americans (see illustration below). It was the source for a monumental oil painting by Henry F. Darby (1829-1897) now owned by the United States Senate. The daguerreotype was copied by Charles G. Crehen and published as a lithograph in 1850. Paper photographs of the image were requested by Calhoun's family, and also became widely available through Brady's and others' studios. Remarkably, the daguerreotype offered here—the seminal entity for all subsequent incarnations of the image, and perhaps the most famous and widely-distributed portrait of Calhoun—was only recently rediscovered.
Brady's portrait, in its many incarnations, was celebrated in its day. One contemporary observer praised the image's 'depth, and earnestness, and intensity, and spiritualism, which so eminently distinguish [Calhoun] from almost all other men' (C. Edwards Lester, 'M. B. Brady and the Photographic Art,' The Photographic Art-Journal, January 1850). Mathew Brady himself stated that 'Calhoun's eye was startling, and almost hypnotized me' (Meredith, Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man, p. 24).
The recovery of this powerful daguerreotype adds to a handful of extant daguerreian images of Calhoun. Yale's Beinecke Library has in its collection a whole-plate portrait attributed to Brady (Facing the Light, cat. 75). The National Portrait Gallery holds an unattributed sixth-plate (ibid., Calhoun A). The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston houses a sixth-plate, unattributed as well (ibid., Calhoun B). A half-plate portrait attributed to Montgomery P. Simonds was sold in these rooms in April 1992 (Sale 6286, Lot 1) and is now in a private collection. None of these daguerreotypes has achieved the lasting fame or cultural significance of the Brady daguerreotype presented here.
Intense and intellectual, devoted to preserving the rights and institutions of his native state of South Carolina and its Southern neighbors, John C. Calhoun was a figure of national prominence in the era before photography. He began public life as Congressman for his state in 1811. In 1817 he was appointed President James Monroe's Secretary of War. Calhoun served as Vice President under two executives: John Quincy Adams, from 1825 to 1829; and Andrew Jackson, from 1829 to 1832, when he resigned his office (the first Vice President to do so). He then served as Senator for South Carolina from 1832 to 1843, and from 1845 to 1850, acting as President John Tyler's Secretary of State in the interval.
Calhoun was, by many contemporary accounts, an impressive speaker and a stalwart colleague. Early in his career he was described as 'the most elegant speaker that sits in the House . . . His gestures are easy and graceful, his manner forcible, and language elegant; but above all, he confines himself closely to the subject, which he always understands, and enlightens everyone within hearing; having said all that a statesman should say, he is done' (J. C. Jewett, in DAB, Vol. III, p. 143). Calhoun is chiefly remembered today for his staunch position on the rights of states, including the right to own slaves, which led to his espousal of Nullification (the doctrine by which states could declare federal laws null and void). His repeated warnings that the growing dominance of the North would result in disenfranchisement of the Southern States foreshadowed the rift that would ultimately lead to Secession a decade after his death. Yet his actions showed that the unity of the nation was of great concern to him. President John Quincy Adams wrote in 1821: 'Calhoun is a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick understanding, of cool self possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factious prejudices, more than any other statesmen of this Union with whom I have ever acted' (ibid., p. 413).
Calhoun was a popular statesman fully engaged in the discourse of his time, one who helped shape national events, and who wielded a significant amount of political power in his shifting roles in Washington. As such, he was a photographic subject perfectly suited to the ambitions of Mathew Brady. It was Brady's goal to photograph the great men of the young country, and it was Brady who saw the business opportunities to be had from marketing these images to the public. Calhoun was nearing the end of his life when he entered Brady's studio in 1849, in the company of his daughter, to have his portrait made. Although no longer in good health, the elderly Senator still had the unique bearing that made him an excellent photographic subject, as the dramatic daguerreotype offered here makes clear.
Calhoun had been included in the lithographic National Plumbeotype Gallery, published in 1847 and based upon daguerreotypes by John Plumbe, Jr. Brady's Gallery of Illustrious Americans was a similar venture, consisting of lithographs copied from daguerreotypes, but Brady succeeded in engaging sitters with considerably more celebrity appeal. In addition to Calhoun, the Gallery featured Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, President Millard Fillmore, John J. Audubon, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, among others. Each photograph represented a coup for Brady, and he would continue to reproduce these images in various ways, as the evolution of photographic technology allowed, in the following decades. Henry Darby's oil portrait from the present daguerreotype hung in a place of prominence in Brady's Gallery in New York, along with similarly impressive oils of the other renowned statesmen of the day: Calhoun's one-time ally, Henry Clay, and his frequent Northern opponent, Daniel Webster. An 1861 wood engraving of the interior of Brady's Gallery shows this triumvirate of statesmen's portraits (Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History, fig. 6-4, p. 80). A description of Brady's Gallery in the New York Daily Times from 1858 cites Darby's portrait of Calhoun as one of the studio's chief attractions: 'The most striking picture in the Gallery is that of John C. Calhoun, a half-length portrait, photographed, life size, from a daguerreotype miniature, and finished in oil. It is a beautiful piece of work, and wonderfully lifelike. The ragged, wiry character of the face marking nervous energy,--the overhanging brow and broad intellectual development,--all mark Calhoun at a glance' (ibid., p. 217).
When this Calhoun daguerreotype was rediscovered, it had an old, although not original, paper seal upon which was written, 'L C Handy Wash., D. C.' Levin C. Handy (circa 1855-1932) was Mathew Brady's nephew and was apprenticed to the photographer at twelve years of age. Handy went on to operate his own studios in Washington through the end of the 19th century. At Brady's death in 1896, Handy was Brady's only heir, and the residue of Brady's belongings passed to him. While much of this material consisted of negatives (both originals and duplicates), some daguerreotypes were included, and it is possible that Handy inherited the Calhoun daguerreotype, and that he, or his heirs, subsequently parted with it.
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