Taken at the Studio of Napoleon Sarony.
1882 and 1883
This archive showcases expandable and annotated images of all known photographs of Oscar Wilde taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York City. Twenty-nine are known from 1882 and three from 1883. For a note on the number see Introduction.
The original photographs are technically albumen silver prints from glass plate negatives and were first developed in black & white, but many have undergone the yellowing process familiar in old photographs. This is the result over time of chemical changes in the albumen that was used during the period to hold the silver emulsion.
When images are uploaded to the Internet they undergo a form of digital transfer. Those uploaded as a color image will retain any yellow sepia tone or any other discoloration gained over time. Other images may appear to be black & white but this does not necessarily imply any more originality. While it may mean that a better preserved print has been scanned, it equally may be the result of the image being manipulated to grayscale before uploading.
All images are in the public domain, but fair use requires the courtesy of citing this archive in any reproduction.
Reproduction of image 3A requires the permission of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas.
All text and research is © John Cooper, Oscar Wilde In America.
Additional dress notes provided by Rachel Klingberg, The New York Nineteenth Century Society.
Thanks are due to Geoff Dibb and Merlin Holland (The Oscar Wilde Society) for their corroboration of Wilde’s two fur coats, and 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 in relation to photograph 3A.
Perhaps with this iconic head shot in mind Sarony said on meeting Wilde: “A picturesque subject indeed!”
Noted as No.2 but probably taken at the same time as numbers 6· to 9.
See below under Repeating Back.
Reporters who met Wilde off the boat described him with a sealskin cap perched on his head several sizes too small for him.
A counterpart of 3A.
This three-quarter shot with hat removed was recently identified as a Sarony variant in the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
The only photograph in which post-processing is evident with the intentional fading typical in cabinet cards.
Wilde wore this fur coat for all of the pictures up to number 9. A close examination reveals that, although similar, it is curiously not the same fur coat that he wears in photographs 19-22.
The trousers were brown, the necktie was sky blue and he carried a pair of kid gloves. Piped velvet doublet, turn-down collared shirt under the fur-trimmed coat.
Comparable to 2, 7 and 8.
Some photographs are in pairs taken as Wilde held his pose, only slightly changing position.
Comparable to 2, 6 and 8.
Comparable to 2, 6 and 7 with the position of the coat adjusted. His shirt has a turn-down collar, now the norm, but unusual for the era when detached band collars were common.
One of two photographs with the inscribed number 9. Wilde is holding a copy of his Poems (1881).
See below under Fingers.
And Repeating Back.
A counterpart of 9A. In this photographs also with the number 9 Wilde is not holding the book, but otherwise the pose is virtually identical.
See below under Fingers.
A counterpart of 11. At this point Wilde removed his coat and changed into his knee-breeches, silk stockings, and patent leather slippers to “be used in the drawing-room.” The bows were highly unconventional.
A counterpart of 10, Wilde having moved only his right arm. See below under Repeating Back. The velvet doublet is similar to a sack coat trimmed with piping at the hem and ‘smile’ pocket.
The item hanging below Wilde’s vest is a bunch of seals (used for sealing wax impressions). Wilde later said that waistcoats will show whether a man can admire poetry or not.
Wilde changed jacket and tie to complete his evening dress. On his right hand Wilde has a seal ring (used for sealing wax impressions) which was the only item of jewelry noted by reporters when he arrived.
The double-breasted smoking jacket has frogged closures and satin quilted collar and cuffs. In addition to protecting clothing from ash, smoking jackets also provided additional warmth in draughty Victorian homes.
Wilde reclines on what appears to be a pelt (see Fur Rug below) with his feet on a Turkish carpet. The only photograph in landscape orientation, although it is sometimes seen cropped to portrait mode.
The stockings are clocked, a process by which a woven pattern decorates the fabric. Wilde wrote: “trousers become dirty in the street; knee-breeches are more comfortable…pretty to look at too…”
Taken concurrently with 13. Towards the end of Wilde’s tour one newspaper quipped: “Oscar Wilde’s photographs are being displaced in shop windows by the less effeminate Mrs Langtry’s”.
The Sarony picture of Wilde plagiarized for a trade card, leading to a famous case in the Supreme Court that established the law of copyright for photographs.
Wilde wrote to D’Oyly Carte in March 1882 to suggest a lithograph of him would help business. He wrote: “The photograph of me with head looking over my shoulder would be the best - just the head and fur collar.”
Wilde wrote: “Great success here: nothing like it since Dickens, they tell me. I am torn in bits by Society…crowds wait for my carriage. I wave a gloved hand and an ivory cane and they cheer.”
Wilde’s mother wrote to Oscar: ’The photographs are greatly admired here - especially the standing figure in the fur coat - they are beautifully executed. I only object to the hair parted in the centre.”
The seal ring has now moved to his left hand: probably an artistic move by Sarony. Note the tear in the chair’s upholstery. This image has been colorized at the top of the page.
This is the photograph used as the cover to Richard Ellmann’s notable biography Oscar Wilde (1997).
Based on Wilde’s longer hair and different garments, the last 4 photographs (24-28) seem certain to have been taken at a later date.
Wilde wrote: “The large hat of the last century was sensible and useful, and nothing is more graceful in the world than a broad-brimmed hat…” The style is similar to the US “wide-awake” hat.
Wilde thought garments should be hung from the shoulders, their natural support as opposed to tight waists, and that capes afforded the oblique line that conveys the impression of dignity and freedom.
Wilde wrote: “We have lost the art of draping the human form and the cloak is the simplest and most beautiful drapery ever devised.'
The first of three known photographs taken in the late Summer of 1883 when Wilde revisited America. He had his hair cut short in the Spring of that year in Paris in homage to a bust of Nero in the Louvre.
The second of three known photographs taken in the late Summer of 1883 when Wilde revisited America. He had his hair cut short in the Spring of that year in Paris.
See Nero below.
The third of three known photographs taken in the late Summer of 1883 when Wilde revisited America. He had his hair cut short in the Spring of that year in Paris, and here he is in Summer attire.
This is the book Wilde holds in several photographs. It is is his self-published Poems (1881).
The numbering of the Sarony photographs is made possible by the inscribed numbers on the negatives (white) or prints (black). Not all prints have a number, but most in this gallery do.
There are two number 9s. The inscribed numeral 9 in each is different, and in one Wilde is holding a copy of his Poems (1881). Otherwise the two photographs are virtually identical.
Ignoring print imperfections, and apart from losing the book, the only visible differences between 9A and 9B are the slightly altered position of Wilde’s fingers, and amount of cuff exposed.
A rare negative positive, and one of the last four, which, based on Wilde’s longer hair and different garments, appear to have been taken at a later date.
See The Last Four.
Wilde’s short hair in the 1883 photographs was inspired by a bust of Nero in the Louvre. For the last word on this subject Rob Marland, “Imitatio Neronis”, The Wildean No. 5, July 2021 (Oscar Wilde Society).
Not a Sarony picture but is this this complete Nero look?
By Robert W. Thrupp, Birmingham, 1884.
Sarony’s camera probably had a draw-slide attachment to expose each of half of a single plate. This technique accounts for the pairs of images in which Wilde held his pose between successive exposures.
For Number 16 Oscar stood in exactly the same place in the Sarony’s studio in which Sarah Bernhardt had stood earlier in 1880, and Lillie Langtry later in 1882.
See Same Difference.
Despite differences in the alignment of the collar, the hair on the right side, and the inscribed number, this variant of number 19 is probably just a retouched version of the one shown above.
The coat in 1-9 has a fur lining, frogging & toggles, and notched collar. The coat in 20-23 has none of these, and a silk edging. It may be the dress coat he brought with him from the UK as seen in this 1881 photograph.
This clipping (Hartford Courant, 1882) says that Wilde carried with a fur rug, and if so, this may be what he is reclining on. It might, however, simply be his heavily fur lined coat, that the report mistook for a rug.
Napoleon Sarony on Meeting Oscar Wilde, 1882
This web site was created by John Cooper based on 30 years of private study and countless hours in libraries and online since 2002. He is solely responsible for all original research, writing, editing, and web design.
The site has been used by scholars, institutions, and the media around the world and is the largest online resource on the life and times of Oscar Wilde in America.
The entire project was created without funding, and is freely provided and noncommercial.
Bio | Interview | Walking Tour | Blog
Author | Interview | Sources | Blog | Walking Tour NYC
Oscar Wilde In America | © John Cooper, 2023