The New Art

“The New Art”

By 1850 Greenwich Village epitomized the gentility and high-class of New York City, unrivaled in its theatres and cultural institutions, its Italianate style homes occupied by the most affluent New Yorkers, its hotels, and its churches. The University of the City of New York, still in its nascence, continued training young men in the arts and sciences as its enrollment eclipsed the 500-student mark. Washington Square transformed from a military parade ground to a public park, providing an oasis for Greenwich Village’s wealthy residents and a breathing spot for the poor who lived in crowded conditions to the south. Overcrowding in Lower Manhattan, compounded by the city's 1822 yellow fever outbreak, facilitated an an upper-class exodus to a more removed, more exclusive 15th Ward (established in 1832) - Greenwich Village1

Amidst the activities of the wealthy, however, a new breed of Greenwich Villagers emerged - an eccentric bunch who operated against the conventions of the elite, finding expression though avant-garde art, literature, music, and poetry; through free love, and self-induced poverty - a group known as New York's Bohemians. They assembled at Charles Pfaff’s basement tavern on Broadway and Bleecker, a seedy underground bar that served the likes of Walt Whitman, Henry Clapp Jr, the founder and editor of the Saturday Press and proclaimed “King of Bohemia,” Ada Clare, proclaimed “Queen of Bohemia,” satirist George Farrar Brown, and author Fitz Hugh Ludlow.2 Pfaff’s was a tavern where patrons smoked and drank, derided the rigidity of the upper-classes, where, as Whitman reflected, “the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and carouse."3

19th Century Greenwich Village cultivated pioneers of poetry and innovators of literature. Yet a “New Art”4 emerged with equal force and consequence in the narrative of American history – the art of photography. By 1858 Mathew Brady, the father of photojournalism, operated his second portrait studio at 643 Broadway (only 2 store fronts away from Pfaff’s).5 Brady’s reputation as a pioneer of photojournalism began in Greenwich Village; without the artistic and scientific fervor of the Village, Brady may have never reached the apogee of America’s “new art,” as the father of modern photography.

The Birth of Photography

In 1837, French artist and chemist, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, invented the daguerreotype process, the world's first mechanical method of capturing images. In August 1839, a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris officially publicized Daguerre’s innovation and the revolutionary photographic process – a highly reflective silver copper plate exposed in a camera obscura and developed in mercury vapors, when viewed in proper light, revealed a detailed, three-dimensional image.6 In 1838, noted inventor, artist, and NYU professor, Samuel F.B Morse traveled to Paris to secure the French patent for his invention, the electric telegraph. While in France, Morse met Louis Daguerre and witnessed firsthand what almost no American had before – the photographic process.7

Morse wrote to his brothers in New York, describing Daguerre’s invention as, "one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age," defining photography as the “new art.”8 Morse returned to New York in April 1839, and, after learning the specifics of the process, began experimenting with daguerreotypes himself. In the late summer of 1839 Morse produced the first daguerreotype of still life ever taken in the United States – a photo of the Unitarian Church on Broadway in Greenwich Village.9

Fellow NYU professor John William Draper also expressed interest in making daguerreotype portraits. To experiment with the photographic process, Draper, a chemistry professor, used the Old Main University building at Washington Square East, between Washington Place and Waverly Place – the very building that housed Morse’s successful telegraph invention. Atop the building’s roof, Draper snapped one of the earliest photographs of a human face – the famous March 1840 sunlit portrait of his bonneted sister, Dorothy Draper. Morse and Draper soon teamed up and opened one of the country’s first photographic parlors, a precursor to the portrait galleries that proliferated in the City in the decades to come.10

Morse began teaching classes in photography to support himself after the U.S. government delayed recognizing his invention of the telegraph, which had drained him financially.11 Students of the new art sought Morse’s tutelage in developing their own photography skills, paying 25-50 dollars for training by the professor, one of which we now address as the father of documentary photography – Mathew Brady. 

Mathew Brady

Mathew Brady began his career in New York City during the 1840s. He entered the photographic trade by making cases for daguerreotypes, as well as for painted miniatures and jewelry (trades he developed as a result of his training with Morse).12 By 1844 Brady opened his own daguerreotype studio in the City, an endeavor that certainly resembled the photographic parlor of his tutor, Morse. By the mid 1840s, Brady gained notoriety for his work – at this early stage of his career he had already produced an award-winning series of portraits of criminals that were made into wood engravings and published in the American Edition of Marmaduke Sampson’s Rationale of Crime - a work that used daguerrotypes to illustrate criminals' faulty brain development, a condition some believed phrenological treatment could correct.13

Brady continued his success as a portrait photographer by assigning himself the task of photographing the nation's leading figures – presidents and military men, business leaders and stars of the stage, writers and artists – and exhibiting his work at his portrait studio on Fulton Street and later, at his second New York studio at 643 Broadway in Greenwich Village (c. 1858). Brady’s clientele list at mid-century read like an honor-roll of American history – John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Winfield Scott – to list a few. The publishing of Brady’s Gallery of Illustrious Americans in 1850 further demonstrated his continuing success as a portrait photographer.14 Brady received international praise at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, where he displayed his photography, winning one of only three awards given out to daguerreotypists for a collection of 48 portraits. While abroad, Brady acquainted himself with the ambrotype, or paper and wet plate process.15 Upon his return to New York, Brady implemented the wet plate process and was one of the first Americans to make the switch from daguerreotypes to ambrotyes, which gained him further business at his new Greenwich Village studio. Ambrotypes combined the clarity of daguerreotypes with endless reproducibility of paper-print photography. This new technique employed extremely light-sensitive glass plates that drastically reduced exposure time.16 By the late 1850s, most other American photographers followed Brady’s lead, using the ambrotype method that could simultaneously record the City's inhabitants, streets, and monuments – a feat not easily accomplished with the daguerreotype process which required a much longer exposure time.17

By 1860, as hundreds of portrait galleries across America vied for clients, Mathew Brady opened his "National Portrait Gallery" at 785 Broadway - another 15th Ward address - and held an opening reception at the new studio on October 7. Brady would snap his most famous portrait, however, 7 months prior to the christening of the "National Portrait Gallery." In late February 1860, at his 643 Broadway address, Brady captured the image of a little-known lawyer-turned-politician who vied for the nation’s presidency at the most tumultuous time in American history – a man from Illinois known as Abraham Lincoln. Brady took Lincoln’s portrait on February 27, 1860, the day Lincoln addressed a large Republican audience at the Cooper Institute, where he delivered the infamous Cooper Union Address. For the photograph, Brady drew Lincoln’s collar up high around his neck to improve the future president’s rather gangly, awkward appearance, and posed his subject in a "statesmanlike”18 posture, making sure that Lincoln curled his fingers to make them appear shorter. After the famous Cooper Union Address, Brady sold prints of Lincoln’s photograph, while numerous newspapers and magazines also reproduced the likeness, allowing readers nationwide the benefit of viewing both Brady’s work and Abe’s image. Before the 1860 election, very few Americans knew what their Presidential candidates looked like, but the advent of the paper and wet plate process allowed for mass reproduction of photographic likenesses. The reproducibility of the Cooper Union photo, because of these recent innovations in photography, dispelled rumors of Lincoln’s ugliness (prior to Brady's image, Lincoln’s Democratic opposition sang a political tune that ended, “We beg and pray you – Don’t, for God’s sake show his picture”19). Lincoln later acknowledged Mathew Brady’s role in his bid for the White House, asserting, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”20

When the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, Brady expressed his loyalty to the Union, and served the best way he could – by documenting America’s great schism though the “new art,” photography. He enlisted fellow photographers and from their collected efforts published The Photographic History of the Civil War, which changed the face of historical documentation and popularized the notion of photojournalism – the public could now see more readily the realistic hardship and carnage of war.21 If Mathew Brady’s Civil War documentation ensured his place in the canon of American photographic history, we must thank the creative Greenwich Village atmosphere that cultivated such an artist.

For a collection of Daguerreotype portraits see The Library of Congress' Collection: America's First Look into the Camera

For Mathew Brady's Civil War Collection see The Library of Congress' Collection: Selected Civil War Photographs

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License