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National Portrait Gallery Acquires Earliest Known Photograph of a US First Lady

c. 1846 Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison Joins First Known Photograph of US President

Dolley Madison by John Plumbe Jr., quarter-plate daguerreotype, c. 1846.
Dolley Madison by John Plumbe Jr., quarter-plate daguerreotype, c. 1846.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced that it has acquired the earliest known photograph of a U.S. First Lady for its permanent collection. Likely dating from 1846, the recently rediscovered photograph of former First Lady Dolley Madison is a unique quarter-plate daguerreotype by John Plumbe Jr. The new acquisition joins the first known photograph of a U.S. President—an 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas—which the National Portrait Gallery purchased for its collection in 2017.

Described by Sotheby’s as “one of exceedingly few surviving photographs of the woman who has defined for two centuries what it means to be the First Lady of the United States of America,” the daguerreotype in its original leather case was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery for $456,000 at the Sotheby’s Fine Books and Manuscripts, Including Americana auction held June 28 in New York City. Support for the purchase was provided by the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Joseph L. and Emily K. Gidwitz Memorial Foundation Endowment; additional funding was raised privately by the Portrait Gallery.

“It is exciting to see the earliest known photograph of a First Lady, Dolley Madison, join the earliest known photograph of an American President, John Quincy Adams, in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian. “This artifact will provide the Smithsonian another opportunity to tell a more robust American story and illuminate the vital role women like Madison have played in the nation’s progress.”

“The National Portrait Gallery is delighted to have acquired this exceptional work on behalf of the nation,” said Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the museum. “It will now be preserved in perpetuity for the public.”

Dolley Payne Todd Madison (1768–1849) was in her late 70s when Plumbe photographed her, most likely in the late spring or early summer of 1846, following an earlier visit by Plumbe to Madison in February of that year. An English emigrant who arrived in America in 1821, Plumbe was an entrepreneur who turned to photography as a professional pursuit in 1840. He established studios in more than a dozen cities before selling his business in 1847. In addition to his portrait of Madison, he created the earliest known photographic record of the U.S. Capitol. In 1846, he produced three daguerreotypes that captured the building prior to the construction of its iron dome.

Madison is credited with creating the role of First Lady as it is known today. Raised by a Quaker family in Philadelphia, she was naturally vivacious and outgoing, and she cultivated strategic friendships with male politicians and their wives. Prior to her husband James Madison’s presidency (1809–1817), she served as an honorary hostess for President Thomas Jefferson, which prepared her for taking on the role when her husband entered the office. The House of Representatives granted Madison an honorary seat on the floor whenever she chose to attend its sessions. Madison’s charisma and intelligence charmed the most hard-hearted politicians, making the lively Wednesday-night receptions she held at the White House the epicenter of Washington society. Her influence straddled political and social circles. At her funeral in 1849, President Zachary Taylor praised Madison as “the first lady of the land for half a century,” coining the term “First Lady” used today.

This unique daguerreotype of Madison is a significant portrait in American history, women’s history and the history of photography. The new acquisition joins the Portrait Gallery’s collection of  nearly 230 portraits of First Ladies and more than 1,800 likenesses of U.S. Presidents.

In 2020, the National Portrait Gallery presented “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” the first major exhibition to explore the historical significance of the role of the First Lady through portraiture. To accompany the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery co-published, with Smithsonian Books, First Ladies of the United States (2020), a richly illustrated publication that serves as a companion to America’s Presidents (2017).

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: 202-633-1000. Connect with the museum at and on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube.

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