The intellectual vanity at play in the late nineteenth century was infectious. As the ideas grew and as the periodic table filled in, the Victorians—soon to become the Edwardians—believed that peace was at hand and that libraries and museums would fill the world. Science ruled the day.
Medals were struck in commemoration of academic achievement, portraits were painted, and monuments were built. Scientism, the belief that all good things would arrive as a result of science and its practices, was the prevailing attitude of the progressive academy, and the mental and technological manifestations of science were lauded as previous generations had lauded accomplishments on the battlefield.
The Jonathan Scott Hartley monument to Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre at the National Portrait Gallery is a product of the philosophy of scientism.
Hidden in the shadows of the Penn Quarter activity on Seventh Street is the anomalous figure of an angel wrapping a wreath around a globe and a man’s head. The head belongs to one of the many non-Americans enshrined here in Washington, in this case, the French inventor of the photographic process, Louis Daguerre.
As an inventor, Daguerre is perfectly in place outside the walls of the former Patent Office Building, the Robert Mills–designed shrine that now houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And although this work might seem at home in its current location, it traveled quite a lot before its arrival.
The journey that brought Hartley’s granite and bronze portrait to its present location is an interesting one, the first part of which is recorded in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the year ending June 30, 1891:
On August 15, 1890, a bronze statue of Daguerre was unveiled in the rotunda of the National Museum building, by the Secretary of the Interior. This monument, in honor of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, was presented by the Photographers Association of America, which was holding its annual meeting in Washington at the time. Daguerre, in cooperation with Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, invented and perfected the daguerreotype, the announcement of which was made at the session of the French Academy of Sciences, in 1839.
From 1890 to 1897, Hartley’s Daguerre was inside the rotunda of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, the structure adjacent and immediately to the east of the Smithsonian Castle. Before the end of that century, the monument was to make another move, this one farther to the east. In 1897, the work was moved, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum Inventory of American Sculpture, “to the grounds on the east side of the Arts and Industries Building.”
The monument was to remain in this location until it was taken to storage in 1969, because the ground upon which it had sat for more than seven decades was the future site of the Hirshhorn Museum.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Next week, Part II: The Monument’s Creator and Its Early History