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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Robert Cornelius

Dates:  1809 - 1893
Active:  US
Pioneer American daguerreotypist.
Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) opened one of America’s first (and Philadelphia’s first) daguerreotype studios on May 6, 1840, after more than seven months of experimenting with Daguerre’s process. Cornelius was a trained metallurgist who worked in his family brass lamp manufacturing business. His metal working skills proved useful as he experimented with Daguerre’s instructions of how to create a lasting image on a silvered piece of copper. A significant breakthrough in improving the daguerreotype process came when Cornelius and his silent partner Dr. Paul Beck Goddard realized that bromine could be used as an accelerator to shorten the exposure time of the daguerreotype plate. With exposure times reduced to as short as ten to sixty seconds, it became more feasible for the public to sit for their portraits, paving the way for a commercially viable daguerreotype studio.
All of Robert Cornelius’s existing daguerreotypes are sixth-plates with the earliest images showing the upper third of the sitter’s body. These early images were placed in brass frames probably made in the Cornelius family lamp manufactory. In June 1841 Cornelius moved his studio from 8th Street at Lodge Alley to a new Philadelphia location at 278 (now 810) Market Street. Portraits taken in this studio were half-length poses and he began to put the finished plates in simple wood and leather cases. Although Robert Cornelius apparently closed his commercial studio in 1842 and returned to his family business, he did not completely turn his back on daguerreotyping. Several Cornelius daguerreotypes from as late as 1847 are known to exist.
[Sarah J. Weatherwax, Curator of Prints and Photographs, The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107]
(pers. email, Sarah Weatherwax to Alan Griffiths, 9 May 2013)
Buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. A self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is affixed to his grave.
“Robert Cornelius’s specimens are the best that have yet been seen in this country, and we speak this with a full knowledge of the specimens shown here by Mr. Gouraurd, purporting to be, and no doubt truly, by Daguerre himself. We have seen many specimens by young Cornelius, and we pronounce them unsurpassable – they must be seen to be appreciated. Catching a shadow is a thing no more to be laughed at.” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, April 1840)

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Robert Cornelius
Robert Cornelius, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, with arms crossed 
1839, October-November
Family history 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Robert Cornelius are included in this classic history.] 
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