Born in Philadelphia on March 1, 1809, Robert Cornelius was the only son of Dutch silversmith Christian Cornelius to survive into adulthood. In the 1830s, father and son went into a lamp manufacturing business together, and soon Cornelius & Company would become renowned for their gas lamp imports. Their lamps and chandeliers were featured in several important public and government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.
Because Philadelphia was already established as a mecca for scientific research in the nineteenth century, it did not take long for details of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype to find their way to the city of brotherly love. Mr. Cornelius applied the skills he had acquired from the family's lighting business to the production of some of the earliest daguerreotypes in the United States. Fascinated by the process, Mr. Cornelius produced a self-portrait that is believed to be one of the earliest American portraits. It is currently featured in the Library of Congress collection.
Opening one of Philadelphia's first daguerreotype studios with his partner, chemist Paul Beck Goddard, in 1840, Mr. Cornelius began experimenting with various types of portrait daguerreotypes. Goddard actually improved upon the original daguerreotype process by adding bromine to iodine, which enabled portraits to be produced more quickly. Mr. Cornelius quickly became firmly established as Philadelphia's most successful and inventive portrait photographers. The studio's southern exposure allowed the photographer to manipulate the light by reflecting it with a large mirror. This provided even lighting for his bust-length portraits, a difficult feat to accomplish at the time. His artistry revealed the evocative power of shadows and light, and Mr. Cornelius compellingly demonstrated how photographs could be as sensual an emotional experience as Impressionist paintings.
Soon, Robert Cornelius' daguerreotype advancements were receiving international attention. Although he closed his studio in 1843, Mr. Cornelius continued studying the effects of light on portraitures and produced visually stunning photographs. His portraits of Augustus Gallet, a prosperous Philadelphia wigmaker, were studied by the French daguerreotypists who wanted to apply the latest techniques to their works.
Because of the growing popularity of gas lights, Mr. Cornelius returned to his more lucrative family lamp manufacturing business, which he later turned over to his sons. However, Mr. Cornelius' contributions were not forgotten after his retirement. His former student Marcus Aurelius Root displayed several of his historical photographs during the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Robert Cornelius died on August 10, 1893.
Unfortunately, less than 50 of Mr. Cornelius' daguerreotypes still exist. Besides the Library of Congress, the remaining and still impressive photographic works are presently being housed at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia’s Library Company, and the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House.
Ref: Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Volume 1 (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2008), pp. 338-340.
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