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  Napoleon Sarony

One of America's most stylish photographers, Napoleon Sarony, was born in Quebec, Canada in 1821, the same year his namesake Napoleon I died in exile. He inherited his artistic talents from his French mother and his Austrian father. Young Sarony moved with his family to the United States when he was ten, and his father died shortly thereafter. In desperate need of a vocation to help support his family, he served an apprenticeship with a lithographer named Robinson for six years. Mr. Sarony moved to New York City in 1836, and joined with Currier as an illustrator, before Ives partnered with Currier. In 1843, he entered a partnership with James Major and established a lithographic company known as Sarony & Major. In 1853, the firm's name was changed to Sarony and Company, and then four years' later with the addition of another partner, was known as Sarony, Major & Knapp.

Mr. Sarony opened his own portrait photography studio at 37 Union Square in 1867, and quickly established himself as one of the most commercially prosperous photographers in America. His exotic studio decor represented the artist's extravagant global tastes and featured a mummy at the entrance and walls adorned with Egyptian, Japanese, and Russian artifacts. With the daguerreotype process becoming outdated rapidly, Mr. Sarony focused his considerable talents on portraiture, and the techniques he developed have become a photographic standard. He transformed posing into an art form, noting that the most effective pose is not a pose but rather a natural position.

By 1876, Mr. Sarony was regarded as the western world's preeminent photographer, and his celebrity portraits further cemented his professional reputation. Like other photographers of his day, he paid famous subjects to pose for him, secure the rights to the photographs, and then sell the images at a tidy profit. His collection of celebrity negatives amased to more than 40,000. Mr. Sarony was rumored to have paid Sarah Bernhardt - the most acclaimed stage actress of her time -- $1,500 to sit for him, a sum that is the equivalent of around $20,000 today. His famous portrait of Oscar Wilde also set a legal precedent in the 1884 U.S. Supreme Court case of Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony 111 U.S. 53. When the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company used unauthorized images of Mr. Wilde in his advertising, Mr. Sarony filed a lawsuit and won a $610 judgment. When the Supreme Court affirmed the decision, Mr. Sarony expressed his appreciation by photographing the justices to celebrate the 1890 centennial of the federal judiciary.

Mr. Sarony also became a successful photographic publisher with Sarony's Living Pictures, a publication in which models are posed to represent characters in famous artistic works. The title was later changed to Sarony's Sketch-Book. Married twice, Mr. Sarony's eccentricities increased as the years passed and won him as much notoriety as his photographs. Napoleon Sarony died at his home on November 8, 1896. His son Otto ran the Sarony studio - which had moved from Union Square to Fifth Avenue in 1896 - until his own death in 1903.

1896 The American Annual of Photography, Vol. X (New York: Scovill & Adams Company), pp. 188-194.

2008 American Cultural Rebels (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), p. 28.

2012 History of Art: History of Photography (URL:

1895 The Literary Digest, Volume 10 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company), p. 181.

1897 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XXXIV (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 65-75.

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2012-12-20 10:31:04

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