From the Outside In: Napoleon Sarony’s Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1882
By Jane Robbins Mize
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.
This image, one of a series of pictures of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) taken by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896), depicts the young Irishman in January 1882, shortly after he arrived in New York City to begin his 1882 tour of North America. During this year, the last year prior to his marriage to Constance Lloyd, Wilde strongly influenced the costume and style of the European Aesthetic movement, and his unique style quickly spread to the burgeoning Greenwich Village subculture.
Napoleon Sarony, famous for his publicity images of some of the most popular literary and cultural figures of the time, was aware of Wilde’s notoriety, and the photographs from this session helped propel both men in their professions. Wilde was heralded with sudden fame in America, and the Sarony photographs were used to advertise his speaking appearances throughout the country. His tour would take him across the United States and Canada to deliver an estimated 150 lectures. Although his opening lecture in New York City was poorly received, and his style was ridiculed in print by The New York Times and the Boston Evening Transcript, his eye-catching fashion choices, seen here in his velvet suit and knee breeches, were soon adopted by his fans. Among the highlights of his North American tour was a meeting with the aging poet Walt Whitman, brokered by the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, J. M. Stoddart. Later during Wilde’s visit, Stoddart arranged a dinner party, where he convinced Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to submit stories to his magazine. This chance encounter would later result in Stoddart’s publication of Wilde’s controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which ultimately led to Wilde’s public fall from grace in Great Britain.
Sarony, a celebrated figure in New York photography, would soon file an 1883 copyright infringement suit against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, spurred by their use of one of the prints from his sessions, Oscar Wilde No. 18, in an advertisement. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, who, in 1884, established that Sarony was the author of “an original work of art” protected by copyright; in their unanimous decision, the Court extended copyright to photography, in line with the established protection for “all forms of writing, printing, engravings, etchings, etc., by which the ideas in the mind of the author are given visible expression.” Sarony later photographed the Supreme Court Justices who decided the case, as well as other Washington, D.C., political figures.
The Ransom Center holds extensive materials related to Wilde’s life and work, including drafts of many of his most important works, correspondence, and writings concerning Wilde by his friends. The Center also holds papers from Wilde’s companion, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), which include correspondence and versions of several works about Wilde. The collection of Frank Harris (1856–1931), Wilde’s friend and biographer, contains significant correspondence from Robbie Ross, one of Wilde’s most loyal friends, and Vyvyan Holland, Wilde’s youngest son, as well as notes and fragments from Harris’s biography of Wilde. Among materials that the Center holds by Canadian-born Napoleon Sarony are photographic images of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and Wilkie Collins.
Former Ransom Center volunteer Jessica Smith wrote this post.