Sarony: Photographer to the (19th Century) Stars

For someone with my peculiar proclivities the name Napoleon Sarony (1821-96) is as familiar as the back of my hand. I imagine Mathew Brady is better known nowadays amongst the general public, because he chronicled the Civil War in addition to his ordinary portrait photography practice, and there are certainly more Civil War buffs around than 19th century show biz fans, I think. But Sarony specialized, and captured many more of the celebrities of his day. His photos were mass produced in cartes de visite and widely circulated so that today just about any major or minor relevant archive with collections of famous people from his time will contain some of his images.

Sarony was a Quebecois who moved to New York City as a teenager. He started out as an illustrator and lithographer for Currier and Ives, then set up his own lithography firm. He established his photography studio in 1867. It was located on Union Square, which at the time was also New York’s theatrical district. Among his famous subjects were Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Nikola Tesla, Sarah Bernhardt, Joseph Jefferson, Augustin Daly, and John Drew. When Napoleon died, his son Otto took over the business, so that there were also Sarony photos of Evelyn Nesbit, Cissy Fitzgerald, Mlle Dazie, Ruth St. Denis, Jack Johnson, Clara Blandick, Richard Bennett, and many others. We are very grateful for the work the Saronys did to capture and preserve the notables of their era!

For more on many of those performers, clicks the links above, or better still, get my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,