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National Portrait Gallery presents "Women of Progress: Early Camera Portraits"
Mary Ann Brown Patten. Artist: Unidentified Artist. Ninth-plate ambrotype c. 1857. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Dorthy Knouse Koepke.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is displaying photographs of 19th-century activists and professionals in “Women of Progress: Early Camera Portraits,” a presentation of 10 daguerreotypes and two ambrotypes from the museum’s extensive collection of antebellum portraits. This focused exhibition explores the increasing visibility of American women in society before the Civil War and the corresponding advent of portrait photography. Organized by Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs, “Women of Progress” is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story,” and is one of seven exhibitions in the Portrait Gallery’s 2019–2020 program to highlight women in history. “Women of Progress: Early Camera Portraits” is being displayed on the museum’s first floor June 14 through May 31, 2020.

The Portrait Gallery’s exhibition reacquaints visitors with the fascinating lives of 13 memorable Americans. “In the 1840s and 1850s, the growing presence of women in public life coincided with the rise of portrait photography,” Shumard said. “As a result, women who were making their mark in endeavors as varied as journalism, literature, abolitionism and the burgeoning women’s rights movement became sought-after subjects for the camera.”

Those featured in the exhibition include Dorothea Lynde Dix, activist and educator who sought humane treatment for people with mental illness; Margaret Fuller, editor and women’s rights advocate; Lucretia Mott, abolitionist and co-organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention; Lucy Stone, suffragist and a founder of the American Equal Rights Association; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Other pioneers are the actress Laura Keene, the first woman manager of a major theater in New York City and Mary Ann Brown Patten, the first woman to command a sailing ship around Cape Horn. The exhibition also highlights the abolitionists Emily and Mary Edmonson, who are pictured in a daguerreotype with Frederick Douglass at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, New York.

“Women of Progress: Early Camera Portraits” is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” The initiative is one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women. It will deepen our understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world.

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