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Napoleon Sarony

Time Period: 
New York City


In 1866 Napoleon Sarony returned to New York City after a multi-year sojourn in Europe and England. A nationally known graphic artist and publisher of lithographs, he had retired from active participation in Sarony & Major in 1858. He departed for Europe craving artistic stimulation. He visited the ateliers of Paris and Brussels, haunted the studios of London. Yet what most galvanized his imagination was photography, an art practiced by his brother, Oliver, in Scarborough. After a thorough grounding in the chemistry of wet plate developing and enlarging, and instruction in optics, he opened his studio in Birmingham, England, specializing in carte de visite portraits, and occasional celebrity pictures.

Sarony's business plan in 1866 was to establish a photographic supply office in New York City with portraiture as an ancillary concern. To this end he brought with him from England the ingenious Alfred S. Campbell, holder of several photographic equipment patents. Sarony also brought his brother's studio rest (Napoleon Sarony patented an improvement in 1868), a retouching frame, and albumin paper. Having witnessed the success of E. & H.T. Anthony as suppliers of the trade, Sarony dreamt of equivalent wealth and influence. Sarony & Company located at 680 Broadway.

Several circumstances redirected Sarony's focus. First, he witnessed the enormous success that C.D. Fredricks' gallery enjoyed with theatrical portraiture. Second, he saw that his goods were insufficient to compete with the expanding dominion that the Anthony partnership exerted over the supply business. Third, his partner Alfred Campbell proved difficult and autocratic in his ways. Finally, the death of Adah Isaacs Menken at age thirty-three in 1868, created a mystique around this risqué actress whom Sarony had the good fortune to photograph in 1864 before returning to the United States. The demand for his reissued images made Napoleon Sarony realize that the celebrity portrait business was where his destiny lay. A visitor observed late in that year, "There may be found the rarest posthumous works of the late ADAH ISAACS MENKEN—something like a hundred different studies of her, in every possible variety of posture and costume, made in Brimingham six years ago." Among this trove were half nudes and images in tights. Lest Sarony be perceived as a panderer to a public craving bawdy, he secured for his first major sitting of the transformed business in 1868 the redoutable tragedienne Adelaide Ristori. No one could doubt the sublimity of her anguish, a vein bulging in her forehead, as Mary Stuart in Schiller's drama. Ever the businessman, Sarony made collegiate class photography a back-up, just in case the vicissitudes of fashion made theatrical photographs a temporary vogue.

The turn in Sarony's business was marked by several happenstances. First Alfred Campbell broke off the partnership to set up his own business in 1871. Sarony then hired assistants, trained fine artists who knew the painterly protocols of posing and picture composition and who could color and draw portraits derived from photo images. He was immediately fortunate in securing an artist of genius, the Parisian-trained Cuban expatriate Jose Maria Mora. The French graphic artist Marc Gambier would soon follow. Sarony energetically reinserted himself into New York's artistic community, assisting in the organization of the Water Color Society in 1866-67. Finally, he had his friends among the city's writers and journalists begin blurbing his work: "As a representative establishment in the production of carte and cabinet photographers, crayon pictures, porcelains, and oil paintings with or without a photographic foundation, is the gallery of Sarony at 680 Broadway. With a natural genius for his vocation, Mr. Sarony has been an artist from early youth, commencing his professional career, we believe, in Birmingham, Eng., and pursuing it with eminent success in this city. He has received abundant public honor, the admiration of connoisseurs, and ample patronage from persons distinguished in public life and in spheres of wealth and fashion."

With Fredricks, as well as Gurney and Son,  as competitors for the celebrity trade, Sarony identified in 1869-70 the weakness in the conventions of portraiture that he could exploit. While it had become conventional to present actors, actresses, and dancers in costumes in portraits, the backgrounds employed in studio shots rarely gestured at the settings employed as background in the plays in which the costumes were employed. The painted backdrops used by portrait photographers in the 1860s were few and generic. Sarony hit upon the idea of having one of his artists sketch the setting used in the plays in which his sitters appeared. He then commissioned a theater set painter, Lafayette Seavy, to paint a replica backdrop. The idea had come to Sarony from pictures of Charles Keane's Company reenacting Shakespeare scenes in the studio of Martin Larouche (William Henry Silvester) taken in the late 1850s. For certain of these "tableaux," the Keane company had transported the scenery into the studio to recreate the stage scene. By 1870 Sarony had made the performer role portrait simulating a stage picture the pinnacle of theatrical verisimilitude. Lafayette Seavy's success at providing these photographic backgrounds was so great that he set up an independent business that would become international in scope and lucrative to the end of the 19th century.

Because the premises at 680 Broadway had not originally been intended as a studio-gallery, Sarony opened a second location for his enterprise. In late April 1877 he moved into a more suitable building at 37 Union Square. The new space was something more than a studio and photo exhibition gallery. It contained sculptures, drawings, and paintings by the best contemporary artists and lounging areas to view the art. As an observer noted, "Since the days of the old Art Union there has been no artistic lounging-place in the city which met exactly the needs of the public until recently, when Sarony threw open the doors of his salon d'art in Union Square. The Academy of Design is off the main artery of travel—Broadway—and is only open a portion of the year at a fixed rate of admission. . . . Sarony desires [to] . . . make his salon a resort, a place to rest while on walking or shopping expeditions, and all are cordially invited to come at any and all times and make themselves at home. The salon is on the first floor, and is nearly 80 feet long, and is decorated in the most severe good taste, being filled with pictures and sketches in oil and water by well-known artists at home and abroad, statuary, bric-a-brac, Indian curiosities, ancient arms and armoire, fine specimens of tapestry and Eastern fabrics, and a host of articles of vertu and objects d'art. The arrangement of these about the room is itself a lesson in the decorative art which it would benefit almost any one to study attentively. Easy chairs and fauteuils abound, and the feet sink deep into the heavy soft Turkey carpets."

Sarony's cultivation of the persona of an artist—his astrakhan hat, idiosyncratic behavior in public places, his membership in The Tile Club, The Sketch Club, The Palate Club and other quasi-bohemian sodalities, his fearless voice commenting upon aesthetic matters—created a unique public perception of his talent. Performing artists viewed him a kindred spirit. Other photographers saw him a significant refutation of charges that photography was merely mechanical reproduction.

The person who became his most serious rival had been trained by him—Jose Maria Mora. Mora knew intimately his posing techniques, his method of retouching, his ways of interacting with celebrity sitters, his dependence on Seavy's backpaintings—and appropriated them all. Mora's eye for beauty equaled that of Sarony. And, since his friendship with Seavy was stronger than Sarony's, Mora began to get more and more unusual backpaintings than Sarony. To compete with Mora, Sarony concocted two strategies: he secured by payment the exclusive right to pose certain sitters, and in 1875 he attempted in still-studio photographs to replicate the course of action in key scenes of stage plays. In March 1875 a magazine writer observed of Sarony's renewed vision, "a group of pictures representing the characters in the play of 'The Two Orphans' has attracted no little attention for the reason that the characters are not only caught in the moment of impersonation, but are accompanied by the appropriate scene. The photographs are thus literal pictures of the play. Although many attempts have been made to accomplish this, it is the first time, we believe, that it has been done with something like accuracy and artistic taste properly designed." The impact of these serial recreations of scenes was immense. Every photographer who aspired to present performing artists--Thomas Houseworth in San Francisco, Henry Rocher in Chicago, George Warren in Boston, Jose Maria Mora and George Rockwood in New York, Frank Bacon in Philadelphia--felt compelled to attempt equivalents.

Sarony's methods as a photographer have long been known in detail. He personally oversaw the creation of wet plates for shoots during the first years of the business. He employed a camera operator, Benjamin Richardson, from 1868 until his death. Engaging with a sitter in close proximity, Sarony conversed, cajoled, sang, and conducted the sitter and when a pose seemed to him photo-worthy, he signaled Richardson through subtle hand signals to squeeze the air bulb that would activate the shutter. As many as 30 persons were employed at the Union Square studio, the bulk of these were finishing artists who colored photographs or generated crayon or oil renderings from the plates. Another area was devoted to his photographic printing and publishing enterprise. While the theatrical scene tableaux series of 1875 were published through the Anthony photo publishing business, he realized that cutting out the middle man would redound to his advantage. He developed the on-premises means of issuing thousands of copies of cabinet cards of the stars. Many significant photographers worked at Union Square with the master, including Henry Vanderweyde, a painter who after moving to London, became the European Photographer to use electric illumination in his "Light Studio" in 1877.

Sarony's method of posing a photographer was far from a mechanical procedure, and it in essence decided the Supreme Court in favor of viewing photography as a medium of artistic expression worthy of copyright protection in the landmark case Sarony v. Burrow Lithograph. Sarony had paid for exclusive rights to photograph Oscar Wilde during his famous 1884 tour in conjunction with Gilbert and Sullivan's American premier of "Patience." Sarony, following a practice dating from the 1860s among New York photographs, signed his images and deposited them at the copyright office in Washington, D.C. When one of the Wilde images was appropriated, altered and published by Burrow Lithograph, Sarony sued. The finding in his favor established copyright protection for photography.

In 1895 he moved his main gallery to 256 Fifth Avenue, blazing the trail for a migration of photographers into that street that would last until the first decade of the 20th century. After the move his son and long-time assistant, Otto Sarony, presided over an increasing number of sittings. He became increasingly absorbed with personal projects, painting nudes, collecting paintings and exotica. He photographed when personalities or bodies fascinated him, such as when strongman Eugene Sandow displayed his perfect physique across America in 1893, or when Mrs. Potter Brown donned her Cleopatra costume. Yet Otto increasingly superintended the sessions with Ben Richardson at the camera.

The artistic validity of nudity became the final campaign of Sarony's career. In 1893 the Columbian Exposition sparked a culture war over the nude. The W.T.C.U. condemned St. Gauden's nude sculpture "Diana" gracing the Agriculture Building. His commissioned medal for the fair, a male nude, was repressed by Exposition governors and censured by the U.S. Senate. As a rejoinder, the Association of American Artists made their New York exposition of 1894 a show "To Glorify the Nude." Sarony, who had long drawn and painted nudes, decided to join the fray, publishing Sarony's Living Pictures in the autumn of 1894. The name was intended as a provocation, for early in 1894 Edouard von Kilanyi staged tableaux vivants of famous paintings—many of them replete with female nudes—with a troupe of European artist models dressed in tights and costumes, provoking an uproar among defenders of public morals about "living pictures." Sarony's inexpensive magazine had staged photographic renderings of models reenacting famous paintings, and several painted allegories of Sarony's own design also employed nudity. The risqué "art magazine" was established as a genre and proved so popular that issues appeared under the name "Sarony’s Sketchbook" after the photographer's death.

Sarony began suffering strokes shortly before his death. He sold off the contents of his studio. He sold his backstock of negatives to Jonathan Burrow, one of the proprietors of the lithograph company he had sued in the copyright case. He willed his business to his son, but Otto Sarony was more concerned with yatching than photography. He wound up selling the studio itself to Jonathan Burrow in 1898, remaining as a nominal manager until his death in 1903. But the goodwill between Burrow and Otto Sarony was strained when Otto sold the rights of his name to Col. Theodore Marceau who wished to set up a rival enterprise.

Two studios would bear Sarony's name into the 20th century. His collection of American paintings was sold at auction bringing in substantially less than its proper value. His negative collection appears to have been destroyed in the 1920s. Yet by good fortune, an extraordinarily large percentage of his theatrical portraiture was purchased by Evret Wendell from Jonathan Burrow in 1908, forming one of the foundations for Harvard University's Collection of Theatrical Photographs.

From 1870 until Napoleon Sarony's death in 1896 he was deemed the premier portrait photographer of the United States, and one of the greatest in the world. His successor as dean of American stage portraitists, Benjamin J. Falk, kept a bronze bust of Sarony in his parlor to remind him of the greatest to which he should aspire.

NOTES: "Napoleon Sarony," The Photographic Times 29 (1897), 51-52. Ben L. Bassham, The Theatrical Photographs of Napoleon Sarony (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1978). "Theatric Photographer," The World (Mar 19, 1875). "Sarony's Cameraman," Image; The Journal of the George Eastman House vol 1.6 (Sep 1956). "Sarony and his Customers," Hartford Times (May 19, 1881). "Dramatic Sun-Strokes," Spirit of the Times (Mar 20, 1875). Bachrach, "Sarony," Sunday News Baltimore (Feb 26, 1882). "Sarony’s Art Gallery," New York Trade Gazette (Jul 11, 1874). David S. Shields/ALS