Lot 43
  • 43

Alexander Gardner

30,000 - 50,000 USD
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  • Alexander Gardner
  • albumen print
Imperial albumen print, on a thin paper mount, the photographer's credit and 'Washington' in letterpress on the mount, framed, 1863 (Ostendorf 79)


The fine details of this commanding portrait remain strong. Grading this albumen print on a scale of 1 to 10 -- 10 being an albumen print that has deep brown dark tones and highlights that retain all of their original detail -- this print rates a 7. The deep brown tones have faded somewhat, and the highlights, particularly in the upper portion of the image, have yellowed with age. This rare, mammoth-plate albumen print appears to have been varnished, very possibly by the photographer, and this has discolored over time. In raking light, age-appropriate faint silvering is visible in the dark areas of the print. Upon very close examination the following are intermittently visible throughout the image: small creases, most of which do not appear to break the emulsion; small deposits of liquid soiling of indeterminate nature; and fine scuffs and scratches. Along the left edge of the image near the inkwell and quill, there is a very fine linear cut measuring approximately one-inch. Above the sitter's right shoulder is a small circular impression in the emulsion. Near the lower left corner of the image, a fingerprint is visible. The thin paper mount has been trimmed unevenly, and there is a 1/2-inch loss along its left edge. There are adhesive remnants along the mount's upper edge. Soiling from handling and isolated areas of previous exposure to moisture are visible. The upper portion of the reverse of the mount is adhered to a contemporary mat.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The photograph offered here is one of only a handful of large-format 'Imperial' prints extant of this striking portrait by Alexander Gardner.  Gardner has been credited with introducing the Imperial format to the United States, when he was hired by Mathew Brady in 1856.  Gardner, a Scotsman, had learned the new wet-plate collodion process before coming to this country.  His technical and aesthetic mastery with this demanding process made him an ideal hire for Brady, who struggled to maintain an edge against his photographic competitors.  The negative/positive wet-plate process could produce multiple copies of a single image—a clear improvement over the daguerreotype and the ambrotype which were, by definition, unique images.  The large-format albumen print, Gardner's forté, made even the largest cased images seem diminutive in comparison.  Brady, with characteristic showmanship, dubbed the new photographs 'Imperial.'

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Gardner ran the operations of Brady's Washington studio, proving himself not only a highly-skilled photographer, but a brilliant businessman as well.  By 1862, however, Gardner had grown dissatisfied with Brady's management of the business, and set out on his own.  While at Brady's, Gardner had photographed Abraham Lincoln as President-elect in 1861. That sitting established a relationship between photographer and President that would continue until Lincoln's death.  No other single photographer took Lincoln's likeness as many times as Gardner, and the photographer's documentation of Lincoln provides an invaluable character study of one of our most important presidents during a crucial juncture in this country's history. 

Gardner took the portrait of Lincoln offered here on 8 November 1863, along with four other studies made during the same sitting.  In the summer of 1863, the Union troops had defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg, but at incalculable costs to both sides.  This portrait shows Lincoln just eleven days before he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most important presidential speeches ever made. 

As of this writing, few Imperial-sized prints of this image have been located.  Two are in the collection of Stephan Loewentheil (one of which was purchased at Cowan's Auctions, Cincinnati, in December 2008).  Another is in the collection of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.  A trimmed oval version is held by the Library of Congress. Another large print, heavily cropped, was offered at Swann Galleries, New York, on 3 October 1994 (Sale 1669, Lot 406).  Several trimmed or otherwise compromised prints have been reported in private collections.