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The Smithsonian acquires the earliest known portrait of an American first lady

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery has acquired the first known photograph of an American first lady for more than $450,000.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a daguerreotype, which is the word for an early form of photography - so cool. Light is exposed to a chemically treated metal plate and makes an image. This one dates back to 1846, and the first lady in that photo was the wife of President James Madison.

ANN SHUMARD: Dolley Madison is celebrated in many quarters as the first person to occupy the role of first lady at the White House.

FADEL: Ann Shumard curates photographs for the National Portrait Gallery. Dolley was in the White House from 1809 to 1817.

SHUMARD: She was known for social gatherings that crossed party lines. It was very much her effort to bring together the conflicting parties in a sort of nonpartisan environment, and this was really something new at the White House and in Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, this black and white image shows Dolley Madison in her 70s, decades after her service in the White House.

SHUMARD: The acquisition of the daguerreotype of Dolley Madison gives us an incredible opportunity to explore the richer and more nuanced story of her life, which goes beyond her role as a White House hostess and helps us situate her in antebellum American society and certainly what that entailed as a Southern slaveholder.

FADEL: So where's this photo been all these years?

SHUMARD: The history of this particular piece is really cloudy at this point. We don't know the history of the daguerreotype from the time that it was produced until it surfaced this year.

FADEL: It was found by a family going through a relative's estate.

SHUMARD: Every so often, incredible objects like this simply disappear from view and then resurface in unlikely places.

INSKEEP: The photograph of Dolley Madison will resurface inside the National Portrait Gallery, although not till 2026. Until then, you can always look at the gallery's website - can't wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BARENBOIM'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 25 IN G MAJOR, OP. 79: III. VIVACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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