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The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has acquired the earliest known photograph of a US First Lady. The quarter-plate daguerreotype of former First Lady Dolley Madison (1768-1849), wife of fourth US president James Madison, dates from around 1846. It joins a host of other early photographic portraits in the NPG’s collection, including what is believed to be the earliest photograph of a US president, an 1843 daguerreotype of John Qunicy Adams by Philip Haas, which was acquired by the museum in 2017.

The Dolley Madison daguerreotype, made by artist and entrepreneur John Plumbe Jr, shows the trailblazing First Lady when she was in her late seventies. Plumbe, an English immigrant who came to America in 1821, picked up photography professionally around 20 years after his arrival, establishing studios in more than a dozen cities before selling his business in 1847. In addition to his portrait of Madison, he created the earliest extant image of the US Capitol.

The Dolley Madison daguerreotype by John Plumbe Jr from around 1846

The NPG bought the Madison photograph for $456,000 (including fees) at a Sotheby’s auction of books, manuscripts and Americana on 28 June, more than six times the lot’s high estimate of $70,000. The funds were provided in part by the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Joseph L. and Emily K. Gidwitz Memorial Foundation Endowment, in addition to private support. Sotheby’s lot essay described the piece as “one of exceedingly few surviving photographs of the woman who has defined for two centuries what it means to be the First Lady of the United States of America”.

“This artifact will provide the Smithsonian another opportunity to tell a more robust American story and illuminate the vital role women like Madison have played in the nation’s progress,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement.

The Dolley Madison daguerreotype by John Plumbe Jr from around 1846

Dolley Payne Todd Madison, who was raised by a Quaker family in Philadelphia, is now considered the inventor of the role of First Lady. Her extroversion, intelligence and prowess as a hostess helped her husband in creating strategic political friendships and positioning the White House at the centre of Washington society. Her Wednesday night soirees became the stuff of legend during her tenure as First Lady, and the US House of Representatives granted her an honorary seat whenever she wanted to attend sessions at the Capitol. At her funeral, President Zachary Taylor characterised Madison as “the first lady of the land for half a century”, the first ever use of the phrase.

The daguerreotype was the first widely available photographic process, invented by its namesake, Louis Daguerre, in 1839. The process involves polishing a sheet of silver-plated copper and treating it with light-sensitive fumes before exposing it to a camera, and then drawing the latent image forth with mercury vapor and chemical treatments. It was the most popular and accessible form of photographic image-making in the 1840s and 50s.

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