United States

National Portrait Gallery Purchases Earliest Known Photo of a US President

A portrait of John Quincy Adams from 1843 -- the earliest known photograph of any U.S. president -- will become a part of the permanent collection in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery purchased the photograph for $360,500 at a Sotheby’s auction Oct. 5 in New York City. The gallery will display the photograph to the public in 2018 as an addition to the "America’s Presidents" exhibition.

"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," Kim Sajet, director of the gallery, said in a statement. "It confirms that in many ways America was born modern; embracing not only new government ideals but also the last technologies that helped its leaders to become accessible to the public."

When Adams visited Washington, D.C., in March 1843, 15 years after he served as the nation’s sixth president, he sat for the portrait in artist Philip Haas’ studio, according to the gallery’s statement. The session resulted in three pictures, but only one survived.

The portraits used the daguerreotype photographic process, which was innovative for the time. Images were made on a light-sensitive, silver-coated metallic plate.

The gallery has two other photographs of Adams, one taken in August 1843 and the other from 1846.

"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," Sajet said in the statement.

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