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The Sun Paintings Of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes

July 2024
1min read

No nineteenth-century American was more enthusiastic about the advent of the camera than Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. He hailed photography as “the mirror with a memory,” proclaimed its superiority to every other art, wrote articles explaining the mysteries of making and developing “sun paintings,” and invented the stereograph—the ubiquitous parlor fixture that brought the world into the home with what Holmes called “the astonishing illusion of solidarity.” And he was a skilled amateur cameraman himself; there is every reason to believe that Holmes took the pictures on these pages, recently acquired by the Massachusetts Historical Society from a descendant. Most were apparently taken during the 1860’s, in or around the elm-shaded house in Cambridge (left) in which he was born in 1809. Here, his father, the Reverend Abiel Holmes, had compiled much of his multivolumed chronicle of the young nation, American Annals ; here, too, General Artemas Ward had planned the fortification of Bunker Hill. Holmes loved the past and understood the special power family photographs have to rekindle half-forgotten memories. “With the most trifling expenditure of time and money,” he wrote in 1861, the camera preserves forever “the lineaments and looks of those dear to us … [and] of the places we have seen and loved.” He may actually have been describing the photograph at left as he continued: “An artist would hardly have noticed a slender, dry, leafless stalk which traces a faint line … along the front of our neighbor’s house next the corner. That would be nothing to him, but to us it marks the stem of the honeysuckle vine , which we remember, with its white and pink and heavy scented blossoms, as long as we remember the stars in heaven.”


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