Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Important Question Concerning the American Presidency

Like many other Americans, I have spent the past few weeks deeply concerned about American politics and the American presidency. And there is one man I have been thinking about in particular. This is a man who won the White House following a tumultuous campaign, but now finds himself plagued with questions about his record.

I am, of course, talking about William Henry Harrison.

Harrison is not one of the most well-remembered figures in American history. If people remember him at all, it's as the President who died after just one month in office. Very few people look at Mount Rushmore and ask, 'Where's Harrison?" It's extremely uncommon for tourists in Washington, DC to ask for directions to the Harrison Memorial.

However, Harrison does apparently hold one distinction. It seems that he was the first sitting head of state, anywhere in the world, to be photographed. He sat for a photographic portrait on his Inauguration Day, March 4, 1841.

Photography was a cutting-edge technology in 1841. Primitive photographs had existed since the 1820s, but it was only in 1838-39 that the process was improved to the point that a person could sit for a photographic portrait. Photos exist of Harrison's predecessors John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren -- but as old men who were no longer President. Other heads of state would be photographed in the 1840s -- here's Queen Victoria in 1844, here's King Louis Philippe in 1842 -- but none before Harrison in 1841.

So the question which vexes me is, do we modern-day people have a copy of this photo or not?

Wikipedia claims we do. Wikipedia says, The original daguerreotype, made in Washington on his Inauguration Day, has been lost—although at least one early photographic copy exists in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lead image on this article is a digital version of the MMoA photograph.

I think the loss of the original would be mitigated if there are high-quality copies available. I'm only going to see the thing on computer screens, anyway.

Here's the photo:

This would appear to be a fairly good photo of William Henry Harrison. However, the information at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website says: Monroe Fabian of the National Portrait Gallery believes this daguereotype was taken from a portrait of Harrison painted by Albert Gallatin Hoit in the Spring of 1839. The painting is now in the Natl. Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C., 4/22/69.

OK then, let's have a look at the Hoit portrait.

Taking a close look at each of these pictures, here are my observations:

1. These appear to be the same representation of Harrison, in slightly different media. They were clearly not created independently of each other. Either the photograph is a photo of the painting, or the painting was based on the photograph.

2. So which came first? If I had only these two pictures to go by, and did not have any other information at my disposal, at first glance I'd say the photograph was first, then the painting was created based on it, based on macro-level details that appear slightly different (like the eyes, and the flesh around the mouth).

3. After taking a closer look, I'm not so sure. The differences seem to lessen when you look closely, and the underlying texture when you take a very close look at the photograph might be canvas.

4. However, I am not an expert in optics or the visual arts, so don't put much stock in my uninformed impressions.

When you look at the historical record, it seems like the case is settled. The National Portrait Gallery dates the Hoit portrait to 1840. It even provides the following information:

Harrison's presidential candidacy inspired many requests from artists to paint him. One of the few that he honored came from Albert Gallatin Hoit, a New England portraitist with very good Whig connections. While painting Harrison, Hoit wrote home effusing over his subject's "striking head" and boasting, "I cannot fail." At least one contemporary critic thought he made good that boast, declaring the finished likeness "the best portrait" ever done of Harrison. 

So if the painting above was painted from a photograph after March 1841, this small vignette from American history has either been made up, or what we all think is the Hoit portrait isn't really the Hoit portrait. Neither of those is plausible. So the photo above was made from the painting, rather than the other way around.

I find it very unsatisfying that, if William Henry Harrison was the world's first head of state to be photographed, that we have no trace of that photograph any more. It makes me think that the record-keepers of the human race can't be trusted to look after our stuff. It makes me sad and causes me to hope that maybe some obscure German head of state (there were a lot of those in 1840) got his photo taken before March of 1841 and it still exists in good condition.

The folks at Wikipedia, meanwhile, are digging in their heels. Go to the top of Harrison's bio and they declare the photo in question to be a copy of the original daguerrotype made in 1841. There's a bit of lively discussion about this topic on the talk page, with one of the photo's defenders declaring, 'My understanding is that Hoit's portrait was based on the photo, not vice versa', without much to back up said 'understanding'. Hey, if you can convince me one way or the other, I'd be grateful.

ADDENDUM. After I wrote and published the above, I discovered this, purported to be an 1840 stereoscopic photo of Queen Victoria:

So maybe Victoria, not Harrison, was the first head of state to be photographed. OK, works for me!

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