The Definitive Resource Of Oscar Wilde's Visits To America

Sarony Photograph 3A

Oscar Wilde, 1882

Source: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin [1]

American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac, Volume 11, 1896 by Isaac Morgan

This rarely seen image has recently been added to the known series of photographs of Oscar Wilde taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882. 

This proof print resides in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, and was identified there as a Sarony variant by Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland. The Ransom copy of this photograph might be the only extant proof print and it is reproduced here with permission. 

Its rarity may be because this pose was not one of those chosen as part of the original Sarony series to be commercially offered in 1882. The suspicion for this is suggested by several observations: 

  • it is an original proof print but without the Sarony cabinet card mount;
  • it is unnumbered when clearly it was taken at the same time as photo number 3 and there is no gap in the series’ enumeration. (This image is therefore  included in archive as photograph 3A);
  • it does not appear to have been reproduced in any publicly available print medium to date; and this presentation appears to be the first time it has appeared on any web site. 

It’s Early Appearance as an Illustration

While it is true to say that the photograph has never been widely, if at all, circulated, we do know that it was made available at the time it was taken. We can infer this because the pose Wilde adopts was used as the basis for a contemporary etching that appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper just over two weeks after the photograph was taken. See below left.

Self portrait
Self portrait

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 21, 1882.

The caption to the full page reads:
Oscar Wilde, the Apostle of Aestheticism—From a Photograph by Sarony, and Sketches by a Staff Artist. 

You will notice that the illustration shows Wilde as a full-height figure, while the photograph is only a three-quarter length composition. So one final question is: which is the correct image? 

It would natural to assume that photograph has been cropped. However, this turns out not to be the case..

Apart from the fact that the counterpart photograph 3 is also three-quarter length, we can deduce that the lower portion of the illustration is an invention of the artist because Wilde’s coat did not have a fur border as depicted. For an example of this see photograph no. 8 in the full series.

[1] Used with permission. With special thanks to Eric Colleary, PhD, Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts, and Cristina Meisner, Research Associate III at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Article text © John Cooper, 2020

Oscar Wilde In America | © John Cooper, 2024