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Art and Daguerreotype Galleries

In antebellum America the public display of art was mostly confined to galleries connected with the production and the commerce of art. Early in the century, associations of artists began providing casts of European sculpture for classes and exhibiting their own work; art suppliers offered a few canvases attributed to the masters; and traveler-artists like George Catlin showed, for a fee, their views of the exotic. By the 1840s, Whitman could see European paintings at such dealers as Goupil, Vibert, and the Düsseldorf gallery, or contemporary American work at the annual exhibitions of three New York art associations—the National Academy of Design, the American Art-Union, and the Brooklyn Art Union. The Art-Union showed such artists as Thomas Cole, John F. Kensett, William Sidney Mount, and George Caleb Bingham prior to its yearly lottery of paintings. Landscapes and still lifes were the galleries' favored genres. In the display style of the time, hundreds of paintings crowded the gallery walls, closely spaced from floor to high ceiling. (See Samuel F.B. Morse's painting The Louvre.)

As the daguerreotype became fashionable, it proved to be an art more profitable than painting. By 1843 daguerreotypists were expanding their studios into galleries displaying duplicates of their portraits, not just as samples of their art but as advertisements that prominent citizens were among their clientele. People often came not to be photographed, but to see the pictures, mounted in salons as sumptuous as the photographer could afford. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (2 July 1846) Whitman described a visit to John Plumbe's Manhattan gallery. Besides noting the decor, the crowd, and the hundreds of portraits arrayed from floor to ceiling, he wrote of feeling an "electric chain" passing between homself and the depicted faces: "Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality" (Gathering 2:117).

Always the connoisseur of his city's shows, Whitman often reviewed art exhibitions for the Eagle in the late 1840s. In 1849–1851 he wrote about art and artists in several New York newspapers and addressed the Brooklyn Art Union. Identifying the hero with the artist, he spoke of the "sublime moral beauty" of rebels and innovators, whether in deeds or in works of art (Uncollected 1:246.) In section 15 of "Song of Myself" we glimpse the connoisseur in the exhibition gallery and the lady sitting for her daguerreotype; in section 41 Whitman represents himself as a collector bidding for portraits of God. (Like most Americans he gained much of his art experience from the printed engraving and the lithograph.) Whitman's early poem "Pictures" exhibits a gallery of pictures within the poet's skull; Ed Folsom, Miles Orvell, and Richard Rudisill think them daguerreotypes, but Ruth Bohan explains that they must be engravings and lithographs. All find the picture gallery, with its crowded, intense, and various displays, a prototype of the pictorial catalogues in "Song of Myself" and many later poems.


Bode, Carl. Antebellum Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970.

Bohan, Ruth L. "'The Gathering of the Forces': Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts in Brooklyn in the 1850s." Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill and Roberta K. Tarbell. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992. 1–27.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Rudisill, Richard. Mirror Image: The Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1971.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. New York: Peter Smith, 1932.

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