Quarter Plate



D4-229    Terms of Sale

THE DAGUERREOTYPIST? In fact, the simple tin frame around a stupendous daguerreotype of an intense young man is a critical clue in attempting to identify the maker. The singly sensitized portrait was probably made late in 1839. The teenager (or maybe not) was placed in front of a neutral gray cloth, either outdoors or in a studio with sunlight being reflected on him. The earliest experimenters realized that direct, reflected light was too intense. One man (probably John Draper) working in concert with Samuel Morse, the earliest American confident of Daguerre concerning the entire process of producing daguerreotypes, devised a holder for a sheet of blue glass that was placed behind the camera, between it and the mirrors positioned outside a window to redirect bright sunlight into a room. The glass effectively defused the intensity of the sun’s reflected rays. The design was quickly copied by other prominent daguerreotypists. Further knowledge has revealed that Daguerre himself recommended using blue glass if it ever became possible to daguerreotype the human face. In 1839, he believed that it was unlikely because of an exposure time of about one hour.

The framed fellow's handsome face was perfectly delineated, but the most remarkable feature were his dark, penetrating eyes, angled down and away from the camera's lens. The illumination was so spectacular that his facial features were rendered as a three-dimensional sculpted bust portrait. As I would expect, the depth of field was quite shallow, but the extremely sharp focus accentuated his nose and intense eyes. He remained motionless (relatively speaking) for the long exposure. This very heavy plate, 3 1/8 by 3 15/16 inches, is smaller than a conventional quarter plate, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches. It was cut from a larger piece of plate stock (most likely a whole plate, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches). The corners are square and the sides are flat. I have read that the French immediately began shipping plates to the United States in the fall of 1839 and I suspect that this marvelous artifact was in one of the first allotments. On the reverse, strongly stamped is ∞ HEDIARD on the long edge, upper left. I can't recall ever seeing a hallmark imprinted in the copper. Professor Greg Wickliff, has made an in depth study of Draper. He suggested that this portrait could have been created by Draper. Perhaps copper was of French origin and had been purchased in America after it had been shipped to the US? Subsequently this piece was cold clad with silver. Thus, the hallmark may designate the French copper producer and NOT who had rolled the plate for the daguerreotypist. It is the most unique hallmarked plate from the very early era that I own. The surface was crudely buffed and there are deep gouges across the subject's chest. They were created when the plate was made, since the varnish or shellac coating that was applied to preserve the silver, actually flowed into the crevices.

I bought the portrait in a classic, very early, top hinged leather case. Inside, the portrait had been placed behind a fixed cover glass in a three piece tinned metal frame that was soldered together on the corners. I don't believe the plate was ever sealed, since the reverse of the holder has three cleverly bent sides that hold the daguerreotype snugly in place when it is slipped into the open end on top. After careful analysis, I have concluded that the case wasn't original to the package. The most important reason is the near mint condition of the leather surfaces, while the glass covering the image has badly corroded and was obviously subjected to heat and consequently, moisture. The deterioration occurred elsewhere, maybe in a wooden frame that once held the entire package. Also, when placed inside the case compartment, the daguerreotype is very loose. The plate doesn't appear to have ever been cleaned and there is a remarkable lack of tarnish. I suspect that the final coating is the answer. Dr. Henry Perkins, a philosophical daguerreian genius from Newburyport, MA, (whose stunning outdoor views of that city were made in 1839-1840) mentioned in his handwritten notes a formula for producing his final coating. I have carefully examined several of Perkins' extant images and I can say with finality, there was very little tarnish on several of those plates.

My plate has been mishandled and there are fingerprints on the surface along with vertical scratches on the top. The image is weak, has a cold blue/gray color and is slightly dark. Just what I would expect to find on one of the earliest extant daguerreian portraits produced in America.

Dr. Wickliff has graciously presented further information to me concerning the very earliest examples taken by John Draper. I believe that he has identified five extant plates, including the famous and now ruined likeness of Dorothy Catherine, Draper's sister, that were framed with the identical tin supports as my piece. In fact, my subject has similar facial features as those of Dorothy Catherine in her very early dag. Please see the reproduction of a paper photograph copied from her dag by a New York City Photographer “Rockwood” near the end of the 19th century, before her features were removed from the surface by a senseless cleaning later. The hand written description might not totally be truthful in the context of being “the first daguerreotype of the human face in existence”. It IS instructive to note that she sat for her brother on the roof of “the New York University” where Draper and Morse had constructed a makeshift studio for their experiments in 1840. Remember back at the very beginning of this information I had described my sitter as a teenager (or not). If I told you that the lovely Dorothy Catherine was 32 years old in 1839, would you believe it? Could the man in my daguerreotype actually have been John Draper, age 28 in 1839?

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