The National Portrait Gallery has acquired the earliest known photograph of a U.S. President for its permanent collection. Dating from 1843, the photograph of President John Quincy Adams is a unique daguerreotype and was produced by artist Philip Haas just four years after Louis Daguerre’s radical invention was revealed to the world. The portrait will go on view in America’s Presidents in 2018.
The one-of-a-kind dagurreotype of Adams is intrinsically significant to both American history and to the history of photography. In March 1843, Adams visited Haas’ Washington, D.C., studio for a portrait sitting, becoming the first U.S. President to have his likeness captured through the new medium of photography. This sitting took place nearly 15 years after Adams had served as the nation’s sixth President, and, at the time, he was serving in Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.
Adams’ portrait session with Haas yielded three daguerreotypes, but only one is known to have survived. The lone daguerreotype entering the Portrait Gallery’s collection was originally a gift from Adams to Congressman Horace Everett in 1843. The portrait remained with the Everett family until it was consigned to Sotheby’s by a direct descendant.
“John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the last President to have a direct tie back to the Founding generation, and the fact that he sat in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, is sort of remarkable,” said Kim Sajet, the Portrait Gallery’s director. “It confirms that in many ways America was born modern; embracing not only new government ideals but also the latest technologies that helped its leaders to become accessible to the public. To have acquired this unique piece of American history on the eve of our 50th anniversary has particular resonance because one of our goals is to remind people that the individual actions of our leaders and how we record their legacies impact the future."
Adams documented the March 1843 portrait session in his diary, noting that he walked to Haas’ establishment at 9 o’clock in the morning “my hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”
Adding to the significance of the historic portrait’s new museum home is the crucial role Adams played in establishing the Smithsonian. For over a decade, Adams tirelessly advocated for the implementation of James Smithson’s bequest to establish an institution dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. With this acquisition, the Portrait Gallery brings this singular treasure to its permanent collection and enriches the way the museum portrays Adams’ remarkable story as President, statesman and champion for the Smithsonian.