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Earliest Known Photograph of an American First Lady

The National Portrait Gallery has purchased an 1846 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison.

1846 portrait of Dolley Madison
A circa 1846 portrait of Dolley Madison | Sotheby's

Three years before her death in 1849 at age 81, Dolley Madison posed for photographer John Plumbe Jr. at his studio in Washington, D.C. The former first lady wears a crocheted shawl and one of her famous turbans, carefully arranged to cover most of her dark curls.

A surviving daguerreotype from this 1846 sitting recently resurfaced and has been identified as the earliest known photograph of an American first lady. The portrait went up for auction last week at Sotheby’s, where it fetched more than six times its estimated value of $50,000 to $70,000.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery paid $456,000 for the daguerreotype, which will now be placed in the museum’s permanent collection alongside the earliest known photograph of a United States president: an 1843 portrait of John Quincy Adams, acquired at auction for $360,500 in 2017.

Dolley served as first lady from 1809 to 1817. The wife of the U.S.’s fourth president, James Madison, Dolley “pretty much created” the role of first lady, “setting the bar upon which all [of her successors] have been judged,” the National Women’s History Museum notes online. She hosted politicians from across the political spectrum at the White House, encouraging the nation’s leaders to put their differences aside in social settings, and she established the first lady’s unofficial duty as hostess. When Dolley died in 1849, President Zachary Taylor eulogized her as “the first lady of the land for half a century.”


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