Arts & Culture

Daguerreotypemania! Revisit the phenomenon in new exhibit

(Above, cropped, Thomas Coffin Doane, The Molson family brewery after the fire, Montreal, Quebec 1858, daguerreotype, Library and Archives Canada, e011154380_s2. Shown in full below)


Ah! If only we had a Portrait Gallery, as envisaged by Jean Chretien’s Liberals more than a decade ago. Maybe with the return of the Liberals, that idea will be reborn.

This all came to mind upon visiting a small exhibition by Library and Archives Canada, the parent of the stillborn Portrait Gallery, inside the National Gallery of Canada.

Unknown photographer Maungwudaus, also known as George Henry (c. 1805–after 1877) c. 1846 daguerreotype Library and Archives Canada, e011154379_s2
Unknown photographer, Maungwudaus, also known as George Henry (c. 1805 –after 1877) c. 1846, daguerreotype, Library and Archives Canada, e011154379_s2

There, one finds the exhibition Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada. Daguerreotypes were invented in 1839 with images being captured on silver-plated sheets of copper. These were among the world’s first photographs and by the 1850s, there was “Daguerreotypomania.” Everybody wanted a seemingly immortal image of a sweetheart or child.

Unknown photographer The three ladies of Saint-Ours (Caroline-Virginie, Josephte-Hermine and Henriette-Amélie) c. 1850–1860 daguerreotype Library and Archives Canada, e011154386
Unknown photographer, The three ladies of Saint-Ours (Caroline-Virginie, Josephte-Hermine and Henriette-Amélie) c. 1850–1860, daguerreotype, Library and Archives Canada, e011154386

Library and Archives has about 250 daguerreotypes in its collection. A few dozen have been selected for the National Gallery exhibition. We see portraits of the famous, like politician Louis-Joseph Papineau, circa 1852, a group portrait of three young women circa 1850-60 from Saint-Ours, Quebec in their Sunday best, and one of the earliest photographs (circa 1846) of an Aboriginal person from Canada — Maungwudaus, an Anishinaabe man also known as George Henry and the star of a globe-trotting Wild West show.

Unknown photographer The three ladies of Saint-Ours (Caroline-Virginie, Josephte-Hermine and Henriette-Amélie) c. 1850–1860 daguerreotype Library and Archives Canada, e011154386
Thomas Coffin Doane, The Molson family brewery after the fire, Montreal, Quebec 1858, daguerreotype, Library and Archives Canada, e011154380_s2

These portraits provide a fascinating doorway into our past. It’s a pity there is no Portrait Gallery for these images to be installed permanently. The National Gallery show ends Feb. 28, 2016.