Storied Women of the Civil War Era

May 24, 2019 - March 20, 2022

A number of women rose to national prominence during the Civil War era. Some, such as First Ladies Mary Todd Lincoln and Julia Dent Grant, became public figures when their husbands’ careers thrust them into the spotlight. Others—such as abolitionist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, actress and theater manager Laura Keene, and Union spy Pauline Cushman—achieved recognition on their own terms. Despite traveling different paths to fame, these women had at least one thing in common: they each visited one of Mathew Brady’s photography studios in New York City or Washington, D.C., and posed for a portrait in the popular, new carte de visite format.

Similar in size to a European calling card, the carte de visite originated in France in the mid-1850s and was introduced to the American market in the late summer of 1859. Inexpensive to produce and collect, they fueled the rapid growth of a mass market for affordable photographic portraits. Americans not only collected images of their friends and family members but delighted in filling parlor albums with pictures of men and women of note. When the vogue for collecting such likenesses took hold, Mathew Brady’s studios met the demand by producing thousands of cartes de visite, including portraits of many of those women who captured the public’s imagination during the Civil War era.

The exhibited photographs are modern prints made from original Brady carte de visite negatives in the National Portrait Gallery’s Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.