Napoleon III

The Carte-de-Visite and Society: Innovation, Education and Nationalism

2003_010_113DS1As an aspiring curator, I started working at the National Heritage Museum as an intern this past fall. The internship allows me to work directly with the collection by scanning and linking photographs to the museum’s database in order to make these objects accessible online. Recently, I came across a collection of cartes-de-visite depicting portraits of famous individuals including: George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), Dante (1265-1321) (see below), Rembrandt (1606-1669), and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) (at left). All except for Dumas had died before the invention of the carte-de-visite. Questions arose in my mind. How did these carte-de-visite portraits differ from ones of everyday people of the late 1800s? I thought this over for a few moments and asked myself another question. Did these cartes-de-visite function as a discussion starter? Perhaps discussions about these images took place at social gatherings?

Carte-de-visite is French for visiting card. The carte-de-visite (or CDV) was a photographic marvel of its age during the late 1800s. The card was small in size, about 2 ½ x 4 inches, and showed an image on albumen paper. Although the details continue to be debated, it is widely believed that Andre Adolphe-Eugène Disdèri (1819-1889) invented the carte-de-visite in 1854, since he introduced the name, format and method for producing the images. Disdèri's process produced up to eight different poses with a single lens, allowing for production on a single wet glass plate. The photographs were produced on a single sheet of albumen paper, which would be cut and adhered to a card. In 1862 and 1865 the process was enhanced by the addition of lenses to the camera, which increased exposures and decreased the size of the photo. Because multiple exposures were produced on a single plate, this process aided mass production and ultimately made the carte-de-visite more affordable.2003_010_120DS1

Disdèri’s new process became extremely popular with nobility after he photographed Napoleon III in 1859. The popularity and affordability of the carte-de-visite allowed it to spread to the middle class; soon scenes of important sites, art work, and images of historical figures were easily carried in one’s pocket or purse via the carte-de-visite. This led me back to my initial questions. Were they merely the trading cards of the late 1800s? Could there be something more to these tiny art works? The carte-de-visite arrived at a time of great social reform, which was characterized by the spread of women’s rights, the idea of universal education and the fight for more humane working conditions. According to historian William C. Darrah, photographers wanted to get these once unobtainable objects into the public’s hands in order to educate the masses. They also hoped to instill a form of nationalistic pride in their country. I think that if education played a factor, the carte-de-visite must have been discussed as a form of intellectual enlightenment at social gatherings. What do you think?  Leave us a comment below!


William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite: In Nineteenth Century Photography, Gettysburg, PA: W.C. Darrah Publishers, 1981.

William Crawford, Keepers of the Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes, Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan and Morgan, 1979.

George Gilbert, Photography: The Early Years: A Historical Guide for Collectors, New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.

Top: Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), 1850-1900, German, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Patricia MacMillan, 2003.010.113.

Bottom: Dante Alighieri, (1265-1321), 1850-1900, German, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Patricia MacMillan, 2003.010.120.