Wilde, Oscar. (1854–1900) [Sarony, Napoleon. (1812–1896)]
Pair of Photographs from 1882 NY Sarony Portrait Session
Pair of Sarony of New York cabinet photographs of the Irish playwright and leader of the Aesthetic Movement, taken at the start of his 1882 lecture tour of the United States and Canada by Napoleon Sarony, the pre-eminent New York photographer of his day and one of the city's favourite eccentrics. During the portrait sitting, Wilde posed for at least 27 photographs, in various attire which he anticipated would be distributed to cities in advance of his arrival. The present images are numbered 1 and 21 within the negatives, the present examples with written labels affixed to the photographs "8/30. Do." and "8/26. Oscar." Both photographs have been trimmed to omit the lower margin, light wear to edges, but otherwise in very good condition.
Wilde, who was eager to make an international reputation, first came to America on a lecture tour arranged by the English impresario, Richard d'Oyly Carte (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), arriving on the SS Arizona on January 3rd, 1882, this being the date of his famous quip to the NY Customs House officer that he had "nothing to declare except my genius." On a grueling schedule Wilde toured the United States and Canada, lecturing on aestheticism in a new town every few days and though the tour was originally planned to last four months, it was continued for over a year, giving approximately 141 lectures (the exact itinerary has never been agreed upon). In preparation for this tour, he bought himself some suitably aesthetic outfits, including a long, heavy, fur-lined green overcoat (shown in these photographs). He became very attached to this coat, writing later that "it was all over America with me ... it knows me perfectly," and he wore it when he set sail for New York on Christmas Eve, 1881, without a word of his lectures written. On his return home, he generated further revenue from the experience by presenting his American impressions to the English, 'a mixed bag of comments on scenery, people, art, theatre, done with great wit.' (Richard Ellman)
Sarony's gallery was the most famous of the 300 photographic studios in New York City in the 1870s. His cabinet card portraits became immensely popular, the nineteenth-century equivalent to baseball cards or fan magazines. He was one of the photographers who helped create the modern concept of celebrity, in effect marketing the faces of famous people so that others could see them in such detail that they felt they knew them personally.