Museum  February 9, 2022  Caterina Bellinetti

“Storied Women of the Civil War Era” at the Smithsonian Institute

Detail of Pauline Cushman 1833–1893. Modern albumen silver print from c. 1860-1870 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington presents the exhibition Storied Women of the Civil War era, a collection of Mathew Brady’s studio photographs of women who achieved notoriety during the Civil War era. The exhibition highlights the popularity of the cartes de visite in American society of the early 1860s and how becoming a carte de visite meant being famous, or at least, worthy of collection. Women were no exception to this trend and the portraits taken in Brady’s studio show how being photographed meant achieving social and historical recognition.

Pauline Cushman 1833–1893.

Patented by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854, cartes de visite were an evolution of the cards used by the upper-middle classes when paying social calls. Disdéri had invented a method that allowed a photographer to print up to ten images on a single sheet, making the process economically advantageous and therefore accessible to clients. In America, it was the famous New York-based photographer Mathew Brady who made the cartes da visite popular. Brady understood the political and commercial potential that this new format could have in a crucial moment of American history. The American Civil War (1861-65) was just beginning and Brady’s cartes de visite, thanks to their affordability, were in demand by the families of soldiers who were about to leave for the war.

The entrepreneurial spirit that characterized Brady’s approach to photography made his studios in New York and Washington the place to go for anyone who wanted their portrait taken. Soon enough, it wasn’t just soldiers and families who wanted to be photographed but famous politicians, senior military officers, as well as actresses, first ladies, and women’s rights advocates.

Mary Todd Lincoln 1818–1882. Modern albumen silver print from 1862 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

Mary Todd Lincoln 1818–1882. Modern albumen silver print from 1862 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94)

Teresa Carreño 1853–1917. Modern albumen silver print from c. 1862 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson 1842–1932. Modern albumen silver print from 1863 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson 1842–1932. Modern albumen silver print from 1863 wet collodion negative. Taken by Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–94).

Thanks to this exhibition, we discover the fascinating lives of the women immortalized by Brady’s studios. Next to Julia Dent Grant, wife of the eighteenth US President Ulysses S. Grant, we find the eight-year-old Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño who, after giving her first performance in 1892 in New York, grew to become one of the most successful pianists of her time.

While the flamboyant silk dress worn by First Lady Todd Mary Lincoln hints at her extravagance, the direct gaze of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson speaks of her work as an abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, and admired public speaker—she was the first woman to speak in front of the House of Representatives in 1864.

His portraits are not only historical documents that recorded important aspects of American society. They also help us uncover the reasons behind the popularity of these women who lived during the Civil War Era and the ways in which their actions shaped the country’s social and political life. Although his later years were stricken by poverty and depression, Brady remains one of the most important photographers of the modern era because he recognized the importance of his pursuit: “My greatest aim has been to advance the art of photography and to make it what I think I have, a great and truthful medium of history.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Feminism & Violence Coexist in Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith
Gentileschi’s Judith stands out because it shows the act of a woman forcefully…
“Quiet as It’s Kept”: Whitney Biennial Returns with Middling Show
Silenced by the pandemic last year, The Whitney Biennial returns with an…
“William Klein: YES” at the International Center of Photography
The International Center of Photography (ICP) will present a major…
Claude Monet's Life & Works in 10 Surprising Facts
Monet was a master painter whose works are synonymous with the Impressionist…
The History of Copying Art: A Learning Tool or a Cheat? 
Copying within the context of the art world has evolved over the centuries.…