A photo of Dolley Madison may be the first to show a first lady: NPR

This circa 1846 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, made by John Plumbe Jr., sold at auction in June for $456,000.

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The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, has acquired an image of Dolley Madison, believed to be the first photograph of an American first lady.

The circa 1846 daguerreotype was purchased for $456,000 on auction in June, and it shows Madison in her later years, somewhere in her 70s.

According to Ann Shumard, curator of the gallery, Madison, the wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, is considered by some to be the first presidential wife who embodied the modern idea of ​​a first lady.

During her time in the White House, from 1809 to 1817, Madison hosted Washington's political elite at social events, creating an opportunity for collaboration among the nation's leaders.

Shumard told NPR that acquiring the daguerreotype “gives us a tremendous opportunity to explore the richer and more nuanced story of her life, which goes beyond her role as White House hostess and helps us place her in pre-Civil War American society and certainly what that meant as a slaveholder in the South.”

The early black-and-white photo, taken by John Plumbe Jr., was found by a family going through a relative's estate. It is unclear, however, how or when the family acquired the historic photo.

“The history of this particular piece is really murky right now,” Shumard said. “We don't know the history of the daguerreotype from the time it was produced until it surfaced this year.”

Madison's photograph will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in 2026.

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