Lot 141
  • 141


20,000 - 30,000 USD
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  • P. T. Barnum
  • Quarter plate
quarter-plate daguerreotype, cased, the photographer's 'T. Faris Gallery, N. W. Cor. 4th & Walt. Sts., Cincinnati' credit stamped on the velvet lining, 1851


This exquisitely-rendered portrait of P. T. Barnum exhibits a high level of detail, from the checkered pattern of the sitter’s vest, the silky-folds of his neck tie, and the starburst tie-pin; to his furrowed brow, skin-folds radiating from nose to cheek, and his tousled wire curls. The exposure is bold and strong, and the plate possesses the sense of three-dimensionality that only well-made daguerreotypes can attain. There is an uneven, thin border of tarnish following the mat’s oval shape, and there are 2 vertical scratches – each measuring no more than ¼-inch – near the left edge of the mat. When examining the plate in raking light and from a variety of angles, extremely fine buff marks and some swipes are visible overall. Tiny spots and debris that are visible in the catalogue illustration are not apparent when viewing this plate without the aid of magnification. The case is detached along its spine and it is rubbed and scuffed overall. This daguerreotype has recently undergone minor conservation, primarily to liberate dust trapped beneath the glass. The glass was replaced, but this lot is accompanied by the original glass. The plate was resealed. Further details are available upon request. Remnants of several old seals accompany the plate in the interior of the case.
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

This striking quarter-plate daguerreotype of Phineas Taylor Barnum is believed to be only the second daguerreotype of the iconic showman to appear at auction.  A quarter century ago, in October 1993, Sotheby’s sold a 1840s half-plate daguerreotype of Barnum and Tom Thumb that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C. (NPG.93.154).  An ambitious entrepreneur and genius marketer, P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) brilliantly exploited the public’s imagination and credulity for more than fifty years.  He made his name in the 1840s with the 'discovery' of Charles Sherwood Stratton, alias General Tom Thumb, and the opening of Barnum’s American Museum in New York.  Today, Barnum is perhaps best remembered for the last chapter of his life when he turned a three-ring circus into the legendary Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. 

From September 1850 to June 1851, Barnum sponsored the American tour of Jenny Lind, ‘The Swedish Nightingale,’ paying her an unprecedented $150,000 for a projected tour of 150 concerts.  All but unknown in America prior to her arrival though renowned in Europe, Barnum’s carefully-executed campaign made Lind the most celebrated woman of her time, mobbed by thousands at every stop on her tour and selling more than $700,000 in tickets. 

The photograph offered here was made at the height of ‘Lindomania’ when Barnum and Lind were in Cincinnati between 14 and 22 April 1851.  It is attributed to Thomas Faris, one of the earliest artists to introduce the daguerreotype to Ohio and 'for many years, the leading daguerreotypist in Cincinnati' (Marcus A. Root, The Camera and the Pencil, Or, The Heliographic Art: Its Theory and Practice Root, 1864, p. 360).  This photograph was made in Faris’s second floor gallery in The Melodeon building, then one of the most prominent buildings in the Queen City.  The Melodeon, located at the northwest corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, was just steps away from Burnett House, where Barnum and Lind lodged, and from the grand National Theater, where Lind gave her 5 performances in April 1851.  Both Barnum and Lind sat for Faris, and her portraits from that sitting are now in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG.95.406) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (1981.181). 

Although Barnum thoroughly embraced photography throughout his career, surviving portraits are rare.  He is primarily known through paper copy prints in carte-de-visite and other formats or through reproductions.  Early images of the showman include the frontispiece illustration for The Life of P. T. Barnum (1854), an engraving by E. Teel after a daguerreotype by Root; and a later cabinet card by James Landy after an anonymous 1851 daguerreotype.  In the aforementioned images, Barnum wears the same tie tack as is visible in the present plate. 

As Barnum is known almost exclusively through images in which he appears clean-shaven, the Faris daguerreotype is particularly fascinating.  The present daguerreotype is only the second known portrait of Barnum with a beard; the other, a charming 1860s carte-de-visite of Barnum holding one of his grandchildren, is in the collection of The Barnum Museum, Bridgeport, Connecticut.