Shortly after his arrival in New York for his 1882 Lecture Tour, Oscar Wilde posed for a series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony, then the most famous portrait photographer in America.
They were taken at Sarony's studio at 37 Union Square, New York City on January 5th, 1882, and have become the most recognizable images of Oscar Wilde and the ones by which we most readily associate him with today. Wilde revisited New York in the late Summer of 1883 when Sarony took several more photographs, this time with Wilde's hair cut much shorter. This archive is the only place in mass publication where all known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde appear together.
It is often cited that there 27 Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde from 1882. Indeed, this is the number illustrated in Merlin Holland’s excellent little book The Wilde Album. [Henry Holt, 1998]. However, the author was wise to note there were “at least” 27 because the book ignores one of TWO photographs designated as number 9.
The two number 9s are extremely similar and could easily be mistaken for each other if not viewed together. In one Wilde is holding a book and in the other he is not. They are included in the archive as photographs 9A and 9B. The additional number 9 means that there are 28 photographs from 1882. To these we can add three known photographs taken by Sarony in 1883 of Wilde with shorter hair. Therefore the current number of Sarony images of Oscar Wilde stands at 31.
Included are the last four photographs (numbers 24-27) which this web site postulates were taken at a later date. For more see The Last Four.
One of the photographs (number 18) became the subject of a copyright infringement suit by Sarony against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, which had marketed unauthorized lithograph trade cards based the image. The federal trial court for the Southern District of New York awarded a $610 judgment to Sarony (the equivalent today of over $13,000). The judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, and subsequently by the Supreme Court of the United States. (See Copyright below)
In a long career it is estimated that Sarony photographed tens of thousands of celebrities including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Tchaikovsky, and as many members of the general public.
Typically, commercial photographers like Sarony paid celebrities for their image, and it has been asserted that Wilde waived this fee. This newspaper cutting suggests otherwise.
The Sarony picture of Wilde No. 18 plagiarized for a trade card. This led to a famous case in the Supreme Court that established the law of copyright for photographs.
The building where Wilde’s pictures were taken located two buildings to the right of the tall Decker Building (extant). Note the familiar Sarony signature used as signage. Sarony rented the entire building at $8,000 p.a.
Sarony was barely five feet tall. He wore his trademark red fez no doubt to enhance his stature.
A pen sketch of Napoleon Sarony c. 1896.
The familiar Sarony signature often seen on a the border of a cabinet card below the image.
The entrance to Sarony’s studio was bizarrely decorated with mummies, pottery, sleighs, armor, idols, statues, draperies, and a stuffed crocodile.