History of the Kossuth daguerreotype

This portrait, originally most certainly made as a stereo picture (thus it is one half of a pair) remained intact in the possession of J. J. Hawes’s descendants. János Novomeszky, American-Hungarian art collector, bought it from the family, and presented it to the museologists of the Historical Photo Department in 2002. After Novomeszky’s sudden and tragic death, his collection scattered, with the Kossuth daguerreotype disappearing from the sight of the Museum’s colleagues. In 2015, we learnt it showed up in the collection of a famous photographic art dealer in the United States. At our suggestion, it was bought by the National Bank of Hungary during the “Értéktár” programme, and placed as deposit at the Hungarian National Museum.

The photograph showcased here is known from various reproductions since 1893, when middle-school teacher Béla Krécsy came back from his study tour of the United States. He had brought home several daguerreotypes of Kossuth, having obtained them from the still living, elderly J. J. Hawes. Washington photographer Mihály Kets Keméthy made reproductions of the pictures, while Franz Würbel created a lithography. The latter was then copied as photograph as well. It bore the important, albeit incorrect in time-frame, words by Lujza Kossuth: “The only good portrait of my beloved brother from 1849.”

Among the several pictures of Kossuth, this daguerreotype is particularly important for it is the closest in time to 1848–1849, and thus, genuine, photograph of him on which he is almost completely facing the camera. Thus, we can look into the eyes of the leader of the Revolution and War of Independence.

After the fall of the Revolution, Kossuth toured the United States in 1851–1852. There, he visited more than 60 cities, holding nearly 500 speeches. His goal was to gain support for the Hungarian cause. He arrived to Boston, Massachusetts, on 27 April 1852. Accompanied by his secretary, Ferenc Pulszky (later director of the Hungarian National Museum), he was greeted by 50,000 people. He left the city on 18 May 1852. According to the 17 May issue of the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, “Gov. Kossuth sat for a daguerreotype at Southworth & Hawes’s gallery this morning”. The next day, the journal already reported that copies of the three-dimensional (stereo) daguerreotype of Kossuth and his secretary could be ordered from the studio.

Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) are considered the first masters of photography of the United States. The two started working together in Boston in 1843. Between 1846 and 1863 their shared business was called Southworth & Hawes. They made and sold almost exclusively daguerreotypes. Individual and group portraits taken at their studio are of very high technical make. Several of their pictures show how the two elevated portrait photography to an artistic level.

What is a dageuerrotype?

It was the first photographic technique to be actually used in practice, revealed to the public on 19 August 1839. This direct positive process allows to represent reality without needing a negative first. The picture could be either positive or negative, depending on whether the surface reflected in its silver is dark or light. Each capture is unique, and could be reproduced only by copying.

The process: a silver-plated copper sheet was first polished, then made light-sensitive with iodine steam, and finally exposed. Later, as the technique was further developed, iodine was eventually combined with chlorine and bromine. The picture was developed with mercury vapour, then fixed with a solution of common salt, later replaced by sodium thiosulfate. Finally, it was rinsed. The picture is made up by the silver surface and the silver-mercury amalgam on it. In the beginning, exposure time could be up to 15-30 minutes, depending on light conditions. After 1842, this would be shortened to less than a minute.

The final plate was placed between cardboard and glass sheets and sealed airlessly. This was needed because certain gases present in the air could have damaged or even erased the picture on the plate. This protective and decorative package, finally handed to the commissioner, was usually an adorned frame, a passe-partout, or a box.

Since the artifact is extremely sensitive to the light, heat and humidity changes, its presentation is very difficult.  The 24 hours monitoring of the artifacts provided by Kern Communications System SRL.

The Kossuth's daguerretype can be visited in the Pulszky Hall of the Hungarian National Museum from 15th March to 2nd April 2017.


2017/03/15 - 2017/04/02