Julian Vannerson, the second son of Thomas and Ann Allen Vannerson, was born in 1827 (some sources report 1826) in Richmond, Virginia. By age 21, he was the owner of a hat shop, but while assisting his brother Adrian in his daguerreotype gallery, his obvious talent for portraiture was instantly recognized by his elder sibling. After his apprenticeship was completed, Mr. Vannerson closed his store and began working for Richmond photographer J. H. Whitehurst. He is believed to have assisted in the opening of Mr. Whitehurst’s Washington, DC studio in 1849.
After six years of working for Mr. Whitehurst, Mr. Vannerson opened opened his own Washington studio at 426-428 Pennsylvania Avenue, which featured a skylight comprised of 200 feet of glass. In 1856, he was named chief operator and primary agent of James McClees’ studio, located at 308 Pennsylvania Avenue. The successful team of McClees and Vannerson advertised that their gallery offered clientele “not only the best colored, but plain Photographs, Ambrotypes, and Daguerreotypes from Locket to Life Size”. While Mr. McClees handled business operations, it was his gifted partner whose wet-collodion plates generated considerable attention and profits. Mr. Vannerson’s glass plate daguerreotypes were first exhibited in 1853 at New York’s Crystal Palace. But it was during a treaty conference held in Washington, DC in 1858, when his works first garnered national acclaim. The 90 delegates from 13 Western tribes quickly aroused public curiosity, and Mr. Vannerson and another operator, Samuel Cohner, were entrusted with making the first official photographs of Native Americans. Mr. Vannerson produced several images of Minnesota Sioux leader Little Crow utilizing the salt print technique, an extremely tedious pre-albumen process that required soaking paper in a saline solution and then coating one side in silver nitrate. After drying, the paper had to be quickly placed beneath a negative for light exposure that was then further manipulated for the desired effect by chemicals. These prints, which had to be produced in the DC studio because of the necessary equipment and short exposure time requirements, reinforced conventional stereotypes of Native Americans, as the leaders posed with studio props to ensure ‘authenticity,’ including headdresses, tomahawks, and peace pipes.
Mr. Vannerson returned to Richmond in 1861, where he opened a studio with another local photographer, Charles E. Jones. They later expanded their operations to include a Norfolk gallery. This timing coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War, and Mr. Vannerson (whose name sometimes appears as “Julius Vannerson”) developed a lucrative business photographing Confederate officers and soldiers, and at the time his professional reputation rivaled that of Mathew Brady. In early 1864, a statue of General Robert E. Lee was commissioned by the Confederate militia to secure much-needed funds. Those images of General Lee captured in Mr. Vannerson’s studios have since become the most famous and oft-published portraits of the stately commander.
The last public record of Mr. Vannerson was his purchase of Mr. Jones’s half of their studio in 1866, which was sold three years’ later to the father-and-son team of John and William Davies, and renamed the Lee Gallery. Mr. Vannerson, who never married or left any descendants, reportedly died in Richmond sometime after 1875. However, there is no record in Richmond of either his death or burial. The wet-collodion glass plate negative of Mr. Vannerson’s iconic portrait of General Robert E. Lee is part of the Library of Congress’s extensive Civil War photographic collection. Several of Mr. Vannerson’s salt prints can be found at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (now part of the Smithsonian Institution).
2017 Albumen and Salt Prints: Studio Portraits of Native Americans (URL: https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/2329).
2009 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Alexander Brown (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 52.
1995 Diplomats in Buckskins: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City by Herman J. Viola (Bluffton, SC: Rivilo Books), p. 180.
2017 Exceptional Gilbert Hunt, Freed Richmond Slave circa 1859 – 1860 (URL: http://artsalesindex.artinfo.com/auctions/Julius-Vannerson-5449701/Exceptional-Gilbert-Hunt,-Freed-Richmond-Slave-1859).
2007 Important Civil War Auction, June 24, 2007, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (Dallas, TX: Heritage Auction Galleries), p. 16.
2017 Jefferson Davis and Wife, Three CDVs by Vannerson & Jones (URL: https://www.cowanauctions.com/lot/jefferson-davis-and-wife-three-cdvs-by-vannerson-jones-146977).
2017 Julian Vannerson (URL: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=6756).
2002 The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 403.
2010 North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press), p. 89.
1997 Robert E. Lee: A Life Portrait by David J. Eicher (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing), p. 102.
2017 Robert E. Lee Signed CDV (URL: https://historical.ha.com/itm/autographs/military-figures/robert-e-lee-signed-cdv-r-e-lee-vannerson-and-jones-richmond-virginia-backmark-general-lee-is-shown-here-in-profile/a/663-72021.s).
1971 Van Nortwick (Van Noortwick) Genealogy by William Buchwalter van Nortwick (Hillside, NJ: Danine's Offset Composition), p. 19.
1997 Vannerson, Julian by John S. Craig (URL: http://craigcamera.com/dag/v_table.htm).
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