(The story behind the photo)
Collectors of antique photographs take special pride in finding an identified antique portrait, taken before 1900, and then unearthing something that belonged to the subject—for instance, inheriting great-grandmother’s portrait as well as the brooch she was wearing when the photo was taken.
Whenever I examine a cased image (housed in a small hard case that opens like a book and generally has a velvet lining opposite the image) I always gently pry the image “sandwich” – a daguerreotype or ambrotype protected by glass with a brass mat and a metal edge to hold it all together—and look behind the image. That’s where you can find many treasures—names, dates, an obituary, love poem, maybe an advertising card for the photographer, or even a lock of the subject’s hair.
Through dumb luck I managed to find this portrait of a young lady with the unusual name of Ophelia Merle, taken in New York in the 1850’s by Jeremiah Gurney, the most celebrated photographer of the daguerreian era. Then I discovered and bought a drawing by the same young lady.
Gurney is my favorite daguerreotype artist, bar none. He worked up the street (Broadway) from Matthew Brady, won more awards than anyone else and was considered the pre-eminent photographer in the United States throughout his long career. He photographed New York’s high society and most of the eminent men of his day (and with his son scooped the other photographers to photograph Lincoln’s body after the assassination.)
In 2006 I was delighted to find on E-Bay this ¼ plate Gurney portrait of a young woman --identified as “Ophelia Merle” by a contemporary paper label pinned to the velvet. The mat was stamped “J Gurney, 349 Broadway”. This was Gurney’s second studio, which he occupied from 1852 to 1858— nine rooms where New York’s most distinguished citizens came to have their portraits taken and to lounge around the palatial reception room, admiring the daguerreotypes on display.
The portrait of Ophelia illustrates the chair, the tablecloth and the exact pose that Gurney used for nearly all the women he photographed during this period. (He used different props and poses for men and children.) Every photographer labored to find the pose that would most gracefully display a woman’s face, body and hands. The subject had to hold the pose for quite a few seconds, and many photographers used a head brace to make sure they didn’t move. Children were often strapped into their chair and babies sometimes could not be kept still until the photographer had to throw a sheet over the mother and then place the tot in her lap for what I like to call a “hidden mother” portrait. I doubt that Gurney every was reduced to such measures.
As soon as I bought this image from a woman in Florida, I googled the unusual name and discovered that someone else on E-Bay was selling a pencil drawing by one Ophelia Merle. He called it “England 1849, Romantic Castle View, Woman Artist”. He wrote that he had earlier sold “another drawing from this artist, that one dated 1849”.
So I bought it. For under fifty dollars!
Since then I’ve learned more about Ophelia Merle. She was clearly not a beauty, but she was well-placed in New York’s social hierarchy, with French-speaking parents and ancestors from Switzerland. Her full name in New York’s “Who’s Who” was “Ophelia Merle d’Aubigné.” She was born on Sept. 28, 1835, married in 1862 to Lyman Beecher Carhart of Peekskill, New York, gave birth to two children (also listed in “Who’s Who in New York City & State”), and she died on July 7, 1893 at the age of 57.
If Ophelia did create this drawing in 1849, she was only 14 at the time. Clearly she was older when Gurney photographed her (in the studio he used from 1852 to 1858). At that point she was a young lady being introduced to society, and having a Gurney portrait wouldn’t hurt her chances of finding a suitable match. She was married to the young man from Peekskill, N. Y. in 1862, when she was 27.
In those days, young women from the best families were educated in music, art, languages and etiquette. Ophelia seems to have been an especially skilled artist, and was probably traveling (with her father Guillaume?) to visit relatives, including her uncle, the Rev. Jean H. of Geneva, Switzerland, when she saw and drew this pastoral scene.
I suspect Ophelia would be pleased to know that today, more than 150 years after she made it, her drawing and her Gurney portrait are together again.