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"Visit to Plumbe's Gallery"

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Visit to Plumbe's Gallery.

Among the "lions" of the great American metropolis, New York city, is the Picture Gallery at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe's Daguerreotype establishment.1 Puffs etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment! You will see more life there—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of. The crowds continually coming and going—the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children—these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention. But they are not the first thing. To us, the pictures address themselves, before all else.

What a spectacle! In whichever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling—hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell, if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance, then, would be infinitely outdone by fact. Here is one, now—a handsome female, apparently in a bridal dress. She was then, perhaps, just married. Her husband has brought her to get her likeness; and a fine one he must have had, if this is a correct duplicate of it. Is he yet the same tender husband? Another, near by, is the miniature of an aged matron, on whose head many winters have deposited their snowy semblance. —But what a calm serene bearing! How graceful she looks in her old age!

Even as you go in by the door, you see the withered features of a man who has occupied the proudest place on earth: you see the bald head of John Quincy Adams, 2 and those eyes of dimmed but still quenchless fire. There too, is the youngest of the Presidents, Mr. Polk. 3 From the same case looks out the massive face of Senator Benton. 4 Who is one his nearest neighbors? No one less than the Storm-King of the piano, De Meyer. Likewise Chancellor Kent and Alexander H. Everett.5

Persico's statuary of the drooping Indian girl, and the male figure up–bearing a globe, is in an adjoining frame, true as the marble itself. 6 Thence, too, beams down the Napoleon–looking oval face of Ole Bull, with his great dreamy eyes.7 Among the others in the same connection, (and an odd connection, enough!) are Mrs. Polk, her niece Miss Walker, Marble the comedian, Mayor Mickle, George Vandenhoff, Mrs. Tyler, and Mr. Buen, a most venerable white–haired ancient, (we understand, just dead!)8 On another part of the wall, you may see Mrs. J. C. Calhoun, the venerable Mesdames Hamilton and Madison, and Miss Alice Tyler. 9 There, also, are Mike Walsh—Robert Owen, with his shrewd Scotch face, but benevolent look—Horace Greely—the "pirate" Babe—Grant Thorburn—Audubon, the ornithologist, a fiery–eyed old man—and Mr. Plumbe himself. 10 Besides these, of course, are hundreds of others. Indeed, it is little else on all sides of you, than a great legion of human faces—human eyes gazing silently but fixedly upon you, and creating the impression of an immense Phantom concourse—speechless and motionless, but yet realities. You are indeed in a new world—a peopled world, though mute as the grave. We don't know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes.

There is always, to us, a strange fascination in portraits. We love to dwell long upon them—to infer many things, from the text they preach—to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. 11 It is singular what a peculiar influence is possessed by the eye of a well painted miniature or portrait.—It has a sort of magnetism. We have miniatures in our possession, which we have often held, and gazed upon the eyes in them for the half–hour! An electric chain seems to vibrate, as it were, between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner's cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.—And even more than that. For the strange fascination of looking at the eyes of a portrait, sometimes goes beyond what comes from the real orbs themselves.

Plumbe's beautiful and multifarious pictures all strike you, (whatever their various peculiarities) with their naturalness, and the life–look of the eye—that soul of the face! In all his vast collection, many of them thrown hap–hazard, we notice not one that has a dead eye. Of course this is a surpassing merit. Nor is it unworthy of notice, that the building is fitted up by him in many ranges of rooms, each with a daguerrian operator; and not merely as one single room, with one operator, like other places have. The greatest emulation is excited; and persons or parties having portraits taken, retain exclusive possession of one room, during the time.12


1. Born in Wales, photographer and gallerist John Plumbe, Jr. (1809–1857) was trained as a civil engineer and spent his early career promoting the transcontinental railroad. In 1840, after seeing the work of an itinerant daguerreotypist in Washington, D.C., he developed an interest in photography, opening daguerreotype galleries in thirteen cities across the country, including New York. Termed "the American Daguerre" by the press, he soon fell on financial hard times and in 1847 sold his business to his employees (–plumbe–jr–american–born–united–kingdom–1809–1857/). On Whitman and photography, see especially Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman's Native Representations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 99–126. [back]

2. John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), President of the United States, 1825-1829. [back]

3. James K. Polk (1795–1849), President of the United States, 1846–1849. [back]

4. Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858), Senator from Missouri, 1821–1851. [back]

5. Leopold de Meyer (1816–1883) was an Austrian pianist and composer known for his bravura performances. Storm King is the name of a mountain on the northern end of the Hudson Highlands, so titled by the writer Nathaniel Parker Willis who characterized it "as the most sure foreteller of a storm." Quoted in Robert Lifset, Power on the Hudson: Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), 23. James Kent (1763–1847) was an American jurist, legal scholar and chancellor of the New York Court of Chancery, 1814–1823. Alexander H. Everett (1790–1847) was a diplomat, politician and man of letters. [back]

6. Luigi Persico (1791-1860) was an Italian painter and sculptor who received commissions to produce several marble sculptures for the United States Capitol, including Discovery of America, 1837–1844, a monumental figural work showing Christopher Columbus striding forward while holding aloft a globe; cowering beside him is a partially nude Indian maiden. Until 1958 the work was prominently displayed at the eastern entrance of the Capitol. See Vivien Green Fryd, Art & Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815–1860 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 89–105. [back]

7. Ole Bull (1810–1880) was a Norwegian violinist and composer whom Whitman greatly admired. [back]

8. Sarah Childress Polk (1803–1891) was the wife of President James K. Polk. Life dates for Miss Walker are unknown. Danforth Marble (1810–1849) was a character actor known for his Yankee–dialect roles. Andrew H. Mickle (1805–1863) was Mayor of New York city, 1846–1847. George Vandenhoff (1820–1885) was an actor, lawyer and author. Julia Gardner Tyler (1820–1889) was the second wife of President John Tyler. Mr. Buen has not been identified. [back]

9. Floride Bonneau Calhoun (1792–1866) was the wife of the politician John C. Calhoun. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757–1854) was the wife of Alexander Hamilton and co–founder of the first private orphanage in New York. Dolly Todd Madison (1768–1849) was the wife of President James Madison. Alice Tyler (1827–1854) was the daughter of President John Tyler. [back]

10. Born in Ireland, Michael Walsh (1810–1859) published the newspaper, The Subterranean. Robert Owen (1771–1858) was a utopian socialist and founder of the short–lived utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was founder and editor of the New-York Tribune. The "pirate" Babe has not been identified. Grant Thorburn (1773–1863) was a Scottish–born businessman and author. John James Audubon (1785–1851) was an ornithologist, naturalist and painter. John Plumbe, Jr. (1809–1857) was the owner of Plumbe's Daguerreotype Gallery. [back]

11. Whitman's interest in portraits included portraits across all media, whether photographic, painted, sculpted or engraved. He expressed particular interest in portraits of himself, a genre which has generated strong interest among scholars. See Folsom, Walt Whitman's Native Representations, 127–77; "Whitman's Calamus Photographs," in Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman, eds., Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 193–219; and Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman, 31–139. [back]

12. Whitman sat for the earliest known daguerreotype of himself in 1848 while working in New Orleans. See Denise B. Bethel, "Notes on an Early Daguerreotype of Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (Winter 1992), 148–153. He may also have sat for his likeness in Plumbe's studio. The Whitman Archive contains all known photographic portraits of the poet with an introduction by Ed Folsom. [back]

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