Cult of the Carte: Celebrity Cartes de Visite

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From the 1860s on, people collected small, calling-card size card photographs like this one and kept them in albums. Portraits of the prominent, celebrated, and infamous, from theater to religion and politics to military heroes, were sold cheaply in shops such as the stationery business, Selby & McCauley,  on the reverse of this carte de visite (right). A carte de visite that sold well was called a “sure carte.”

Images of celebrities were advertised for sale in ladies’ magazines and special albums were made specifically to hold collections of cartes.

Some photography historians have argued that the American photographer’s focus on portraiture helped to create our culture of celebrity obsession.

Unfortunately, this 1860s celebrity is not identified, but the photographer, Stephen Israel of Israel & Co., believed so firmly in the value of this image that he filed for copyright in 1863.

Israel indicated the subject’s gravitas and intellectual stature by using a backdrop of a well-to-do man’s private library. The subject is posed with his right hand inserted into his coat, a convention that became a sign of a gentleman’s good breeding. Widely used in portraiture, and made famous by a painting of  Napoleon,  the convention was carried on in nineteenth century photography.

For more on the origin and meaning of the “hand-in” pose, visit Tom Holmberg’s article, “Why is Napoleon depicted with his hand in his coat?”, part of The Napolean Series, a site dedicated to all things Napoleonic.

To learn more about the history of photograph-collecting, visit Canada’s McCord Museum. You can even assemble your own virtual album from the site’s voluminous image library.

Do you recognize the man in this photograph? Email me at waldonia2000 [at] gmail [dot] com.