Photographs of Actors and Performers
By the second half of the nineteenth century, photography was firmly established as the portrait medium of choice. Images were routinely made of politicians, businessmen, and families. Performers quickly realized they could promote their work with photographs and sat for many images of themselves in costume or in elegant evening attire. These images were sold by photographers to the general public. At first, performers photographs were sold in the cartes-de-visite format but these were later replaced by cabinet photographs.
Cabinet photographs, also known as cabinet cards, rose in popularity in America after the Civil War. The cabinet photograph, at a standard 6 ½ inches x 4 ¼ inches (16.5 x 11 cm), was larger than the earlier
cartes-de-visite (4 ½" x 2 ½" or 11 x 6 cm), and allowed photographers to produce prints with more detail or more figures. Beginning around 1866 cabinet cards were offered in most urban areas and within twenty years they had almost entirely replaced the cartes-de-visite as the most popular format for commercial photography.
Cabinet cards are usually thin albumen photographs mounted on heavy Bristol board or press board and feature the name and address of the photograph printed on the card. Elaborate borders and gilt edges were also used. The cards were too large and heavy for photograph albums, and were meant for display as individual objects. In fact, the term cabinet photograph may have developed from the Victorian practice of displaying the cards on small easels and stands atop fancy parlor cabinets.
The Society's collection of cabinet cards of actors and performers includes portraits of opera singers, actors, psychics, and musicians. Images of internationally known figures such as Sarah Berhnard (1844-1923) are housed along with local celebrities such as the actress Mrs. Mary Vincent (1818-1887), who for many years performed dramas and comedies at the Boston Museum Theater. There are additional images of performers included in the cartes-de-visite collection and in the portrait photograph collection.
A collection inventory is available.
Lauren B. Hewes, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts