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This portrait of Dolley Madison might be the first photo of a first lady

This circa 1846 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, made by John Plumbe Jr., was purchased for $456,000 at auction in June.
Sotheby's
This circa 1846 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, made by John Plumbe Jr., was purchased for $456,000 at auction in June.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., has acquired an image of Dolley Madison, believed to be the first photograph of a U.S. first lady.

The circa 1846 daguerreotype was purchased for $456,000 at auction in June, and it depicts Madison in her later years, at some point in her 70s.

Madison, who was the wife of James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, is considered by some as the first presidential spouse to embody the modern idea of a first lady, according to Ann Shumard, gallery curator.

During her time in the White House, from 1809 to 1817, Madison hosted Washington's political elite at social functions, creating a lane for bipartisan cooperation among the nation's leaders.

Shumard told NPR that the acquisition of the daguerreotype "gives us an incredible opportunity to explore the richer and more nuanced story of her life, which goes beyond her role as a White House hostess and helps us situate her in antebellum American society and certainly what that entailed as a Southern slaveholder."

The black-and-white early photograph, made by John Plumbe Jr., was found by a family going through a relative's estate, but it is unclear how or when the family acquired the historic picture.

"The history of this particular piece is really cloudy at this point," Shumard said. "We don't know the history of the daguerreotype from the time that it was produced until it surfaced this year."

Madison's image will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in 2026.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.