A Durable Memento

An upcoming exhibition honors the legacy of an American artist who found freedom in Liberia

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So far, no one has found an image of the photographer. But the portraits we do have are revealing. The celebrated portrait of John Brown, taken when he lived in Springfield, Massachusetts (1846-48), shows a flag believed to be the banner of Brown's proposed Underground Railroad organization. Many of the Hartford images reflect the popular poses of the day. The Hartford men generally are posed frontally with one forearm resting on a table, the other on the thigh. Women are turned slightly, their heads often tilted. No one smiles: a daguerreotype was a rare event in most lives, and one didn't want to go down in history grinning. Besides, the exposures took 5 to 15 seconds.

Carol Johnson, an assistant curator at the Library of Congress, has made an intriguing discovery about daguerreotypes of Liberian statesmen attributed to Washington in the library's collection. The rather eccentric poses match those in a watercolor study that she unearthed for a major group portrait of the Liberian Senate. Thus, Senator Roye stands with his hand raised in gesture just as he appears in the watercolor study depicting the Senate in action. Others, seated at their desks, also assume the same poses in both the daguerreotypes and the study.

Shumard has advertised for Washington's daguerreotypes in the Daguerreian Society newsletter and has had responses from collectors in California and Massachusetts. And, from a collector in New York, the Smithsonian has acquired a significant group of Washington's images, several of which will be displayed in the exhibition, which runs until January 2, 2000.

"I hope the show will bring some more Augustus Washington daguerreotypes out of the woodwork," Shumard says. Research is forever.

By Michael Kernan


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