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hand-colored Imperial salt print of Judah Benjamin

(BENJAMIN, JUDAH P.) Mathew Brady Studio.. Judah P. Benjamin

[New York: Mathew Brady Studio, late 1850s.]

Hand colored salted paper print (12 x 16 ½ in.). Matted and framed. Small loss to blank lower right corner of print; short closed at top.

This is an outstanding hand-colored salt print of Confederate statesman Judah P. Benjamin, one of the most prominent American Jews of the nineteenth century. A leading attorney and a prominent sugar planter, he served as U.S. Senator from Louisiana in the 1850s. He declined Millard Fillmore’s offer of a position on the Supreme Court, which would have made him the first Jew on the nation’s highest court. With the establishment of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin to a series of cabinet posts: attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state. At the end of the Civil War Benjamin fled to England, where he established a highly successful law practice, never to return to America.

This photograph is by Mathew Brady Studio. “Early on, Brady set himself the task of photographing the nation’s leading figures: presidents and military men, business leaders and stars of the stage, writers and artists. Each photograph of a man or woman of mark, displayed in the studio’s reception room, attracted new clients and bore witness to the skill, art, and social standing of ‘Brady of Broadway’ as much as it did to the taste and station of the sitter” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Brady coined the term “imperial’ for his large photographic portraits intended to rival mezzotints and lithographs in size. The only other example of this imposing Judah Benjamin portrait that we have seen is that at the Chicago Historical Society, slightly larger at 17 x 19 in. Upon viewing one of Brady’s “life size portraits,” a commentator in Harper’s Weekly noted in 1857, “The vocation for the portrait painter is not gone but modified. Portrait painting by the old methods is as completely defunct as is navigation by the stars.”

This is a splendid hand-colored Brady Imperial salt print of one of the great figures in American Jewish history.