I wanted to write a quick post in celebration of a nineteenth-century gent whose photographs you’ll probably be familiar with, but whose fabulously flouncy self is far less known than he deserves to be. Meet Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)
Born in Quebec in 1821, Sarony moved to New York in 1836 to pursue a career in lithography and photography. It was in 1867 that he established the famed photography studio at 37 Union Square which Walt Whitman described as ‘a great establishment’ in which he ‘had a real pleasant time’ when he was invited to sit for Sarony in 1878.
The key to Sarony’s success was his ability to put his sitters at ease and to capture them in moments of introspection or informality, even amongst the fantastical selection of backdrops and props which often features in the pictures. “It is evident,” Sarony told an interviewer in 1896 “that many can be photographed to look naturally only by means of a snapshot, a picture taken when the sitter doesn’t know it. And therein lies the use of the art of not posing. The shot must be made by a sharp-shooter, for the game cannot be bagged by a careless sportsman.”
Sarony was particularly pleased with his photographs of Wilkie Collins, whom he captured in a very informal pose in 1874.
Collins himself seems to have been no less pleased when the pictures were developed and wrote to Sarony “You have taken just the sort of photograph I like. Those taken of me over here are perfect libels, but I feel like giving your pictures to all my friends.” Indeed, Collins seems to have had trouble keeping hold of the Sarony prints and had to tell some pretty hilarious fibs to prevent their being lifted by adoring fans and visitors:
When ladies find their way in here, and want my photograph, I open my repository, and try to put them off with some of the later photographs done of me in England. They all discover other photos hidden underneath – all say, “What have you got there?” – all snatch out Sarony, and flatly refuse to take any other portrait. I tried to save one copy of the other day from a comic actress who was here. She had got the photo face downwards – I seized her hand – and said, “For God’s sake don’t look at that; it’s something indecent!” She instantly answered: “Then, I must certainly look at it!” – and so got the portrait.
(Wilkie Collins, Letter to Napoleon Sarony, 19 March 1887)
Sarony operated a system whereby he paid large (sometimes enormous) sums to celebrities to sit for him, but then retained sole rights to the images, which he sold as postcards and prints from his studio. The largest sum he ever paid was £1500 to the actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1932). Bernhardt went on to sit for Sarony on several further occasions, looking more and more fabulous each time!
The most iconic of Sarony’s photographs are those he took of Oscar Wilde when Wilde arrived for his American tour in 1882.
My personal favourite of all Sarony’s portraits, though, is this one, taken a year later when Wilde returned to America in 1883, looking, as one reporter remarked, ‘stouter than when he was here last’ and sporting a new and decidedly questionable haircut. Behold Wilde’s Neronian hairdo, coiffed to resemble everyone’s favourite decadent pyromaniac, the Roman emperor Nero:
‘Everyone tells me I look young. That is delightful of course.’ Wilde is reported to have remarked to Sarony during the sitting. Hmm.
You can check out the wonderful free online archive of all the known Sarony photographs of Wilde in America available via Oscar Wilde in America.
 Interview with Napoleon Sarony, The American Annual of Photography (1896)
 Cited in Anon. ‘The Sarony Session’, Virginia Quarterly Review, 8:2 (2005), p. 122.