Portraits of Lincoln among ‘jewels’ of newly acquired photography collection

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
March 30, 2015

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Yale University Art Gallery are acquiring the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, one of the nation’s most historically significant photographic collections and the definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln.

“With this remarkable acquisition, Yale has secured its place as the premier institution for the study of American photography from the Civil War to the Gilded Age,” says Yale President Peter Salovey. “I am delighted that faculty, students, and scholars from around the country and around the globe will have the opportunity to study this collection, learn from it, and share that knowledge.”

Amassed by Frederick Hill Meserve (1865-1962) with the help of his daughter Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt (1900-1978), the collection contains more than 73,000 items, including 57,000 photographic prints, as well as thousands of books, pamphlets, maps, and theater broadsides. These materials document American history from the Civil War through the end of the 19th century and record the emergence of photography as a distinctive cultural practice.

Among the jewels of the collection are photographs of Abraham Lincoln, including an 1863 Alexander Gardner imperial albumen portrait and Mathew Brady’s “Cooper Union” portrait.

“Our family and the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation have preserved the collection for more than a century. The Beinecke Library will now broaden access to students and scholars and preserve it for centuries to come,” says Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.

The collection’s significance also lies in the tens of thousands of portraits of American politicians, army officers (of both the Union and Confederate forces), writers, actors, singers, scientists, African Americans, and Native Americans. A daguerreotype of Susan B. Anthony is among the many images of women whose portraits appear in the collection.

“The Meserve-Kunhardt Collection is a magnificent prize for Yale to attain,” says David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale. “It consists of unmatched Lincoln material and much else.  Scholars of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially of photography, will find a dazzling array of material for their research.”

The collection includes examples of works from most photographers who were active in 19th-century America, including Alexander Gardner and his circle, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and Mathew Brady.

“The opportunities presented to research, exhibit, publish, and teach with this vast trove of historical images are boundless, and will surely attract legions of students, faculty members, artists, and public scholars to engage actively with these materials for many generations to come,” says Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery.