Forgotten Password?   JOIN FREE!

Photographers Database
Artists Database
ClassyArts Blog
Public Domain Images

A Biographical Chronology for Napoleon Sarony

A Work in Progress, version 0.1 September 2010

For one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, there is surprising little written about Napoleon Sarony, and much of what is available is wrong. My own interest was sparked a couple years ago while looking at a photograph published at the Broadway studio (680 Broadway, NYC). Clearly a mid-1870s image -- but all the sources I've seen say Sarony moved to 37 Union Square in 1871 (well, all those that don't skip the Broadway studio altogether and place him at Union Square in 1866!) So I decided to see what genealogical records can tell us about Napoleon Sarony, and his photographic studios through the decades.

First, let's survey the websites with biographical sketches of the artist, and see what clues we can glean from those (note that I have rearranged stated factoids chronologically):


  • born in Quebec in 1821
  • moved to New York City around 1836
  • worked as an illustrator for Currier and Ives before joining with James Major and starting his own lithography business, Sarony & Major, in 1843
  • In 1845, James Major was replaced by Henry B. Major
  • From 1853 to 1857, the firm was known as Sarony and Company
  • from 1857 to 1867, as Sarony, Major & Knapp
  • His first wife died in 1858
  • Napoleon's son Otto (1859-1903) continued the family name for few years until his own early death in 1903
  • Sarony left the [lithography] firm in 1867 and established a photography studio at 37 Union Square
  • His brother, Oliver Fran├žois Xavier Sarony, was also a portrait photographer who died in 1879
  • died 1896

Luminous-Lint [Article contributed by Paul Frecker]

  • born Quebec 1821
  • moved to New York in 1836 and worked as a lithographer for Nathaniel Currier
  • until he established his own lithographic firm in 1843
  • Originally self-taught, in 1858 he went to Europe for formal artistic training
  • In 1864 he apprenticed himself to his brother, Oliver Francois Xavier Sarony, a noted photographer in Scarborough
  • Within a year he went to Birmingham and partnered with R. W. Thrupp and Martin Laroche (real name William Henry Silvester ...)
  • returned to New York in 1866 and opened a studio at 680 Broadway
  • The studio was moved to 37 Union Square in 1871
  • and to 256 Fifth Avenue about 1885
  • died 1896
  • His will specified that his son Otto manage the studio for 15 years (at $75 a week) and the profits be split between Sarony's widow, his daughter Belle, and Otto.

Formerly the George Eastman House telnet database; now simply titled Photography Database

  • [there is apparently no way to link to the specific record, you have to search]
  • born March 10, 1821 Quebec, Canada
  • The son of a lithographer, Sarony went to NYC around 1836
  • and worked as a lithographer for Nathaniel Currier
  • He formed a lithographic firm with Henry B. Major, 1846
  • in 1857 the partners took on Joseph F. Knapp to become Sarony, Major & Knapp
  • Also listed as a daguereotypist in 1857, Sarony apparently made lithographs from daguerreotypes.
  • Originally self-taught, he went to Europe for artistic training, 1858.
  • In 1864 he apprenticed himself to his brother, Oliver Sarony, a noted photographer in Scarborough
  • Within a year he opened his own studio in Birmingham, England, with Silvestre Laroche
  • Returning to NYC in 1866, he then opened a gallery at 680 Broadway
  • The studio was moved to 37 Union Square in 1871
  • and to 256 Fifth Avenue about 1885
  • died November 8, 1896, New York, NY
  • His will specified that his son Otto manage the studio for 15 years (at $75 a week) and the profits be split among Sarony's widow, his daughter Belle, and Otto.

Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources [Special feature by Barbara Schmidt]

  • born about 1821 in Quebec, Canada
  • his father, a lithographer, had immigrated to Canada from Birmingham, England
  • mother died when he was about ten years old causing the family, which included eight children, to disperse
  • Napoleon Sarony arrived in New York state in the 1830s and worked as a lithographer with Henry R. Robinson and Nathaniel Currier
  • established his own firm in partnership with Henry B. Major
  • in 1846 he married Ellen Major (b. about 1830, possibly a sister to Henry)
  • The 1850 census for Kings, Williamsburg, New York shows Napoleon and Ellen living in the Henry Major household along with the Sarony children Ida, age two and son Otto, age seven months
  • In 1857, Joseph F. Knapp joined the partnership to form the Sarony, Major & Knapp
  • Ellen Sarony died in January 1858
  • [took] his children to Europe where he studied art in Berlin, Paris and London
  • After visiting his older brother Olivier (b. 1820 - d. 1879) in Scarborough, England and seeing the enormous financial success Olivier was having in portrait photography, Sarony felt he could do the same
  • returned to the States and in 1865 opened his first photography studio in New York City at 630 Broadway, later moving it to 680 Broadway
  • In late 1871 Sarony moved his studio to 37 Union Square
  • Sarony's other daughter Ida had died in childbirth in 1878
  • Isabelle Sarony [mentioned in Napoleon's will] married Joseph Bonanno in 1885
  • In April 1896, a few months before his death Sarony had moved from the old 37 Union Square address
  • At the time of his death, Sarony's studio was located at 256 Fifth Avenue
  • died on November 9, 1896 at his home at 126 West Forty-seventh street
  • according to his will which was dated October 2, 1885, Sarony bequeathed $1,500 to his daughter Mrs. Mary Fry of London and $500 to another daughter Mrs. Jennie Fisher.
  • The remainder of his estate was to be divided among his surviving widow Louise, his son Otto, and a daughter named Isabelle
  • (Isabelle's parentage is open to question. Genealogy researcher Peggy Wishon, in private correspondence of January 2008, reports finding a birth registration for an Isabel Louise Sarony, registered in Birmingham, England, in 1864. However, the 1870 United States census shows a six-year-old daughter Isabelle, born in Massachusetts, living in Sarony's household. It seems possible she was Louise's daughter prior to her marriage to Sarony. Obituaries reported that Napoleon and his wife Louise had no children together. Isabelle's name was missing from the surrogate notices that appeared in the New York Times in 1897 and it is likely she had died before Sarony.)
  • Louise Sarony remarried to Domenico Bonanno in 1897
  • Otto sold the Sarony studio and trademark name October 7, 1898 to John F. Burrow
  • Otto Sarony found himself in legal trouble when he also sold to Theodore Marceau, the right to use the Sarony name for another photography studio in exchange for one share of the Marceau Company (case that was finally decided in favor of Burrow in 1908)
  • Louise Sarony died on March 8, 1903
  • Otto Sarony died on September 13, 1903 survived by one son Arthur Yale Sarony

Are there enough contradicting statements there to spin your head? Printed sources are not much better. Most of those I found did not include any substantial biographical information. Here is one with more info:

The Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy, published by Routledge an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group LLC, New York and London: 2008 [article by John Hannavy]

  • [Olivier and Napoleon Sarony] sons of an officer in the Austrian army who had moved to Canada after Waterloo
  • brothers moved to New York with their parents in 1831
  • by 1841 both enthused by photography, Oliver operating daguerreotype studios briefly in both New York and Quebec
  • Napoleon trained as lithographer ... worked with ... Nathaniel Currier
  • 1843 ... Oliver emigrated to England
  • 1840s and early 1850s operating studios in towns and cities in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire
  • Napoleon ... his own lithographic business in partnership with James Major in 1843
  • by 1857 ... another partner and traded as Sarony, Major & Knapp
  • 1857 Napoleon Sarony's first studio is believed to have opened in Yonkers
  • [Oliver] opening a permanent studio in Scarborough, Yorkshire, in 1857
  • [Napoleon's Yonkers] studio is not listed after 1858, and he is believed to have left for a tour of European lithographic companies some time before 1860, arriving in England in 1863
  • by 1864 [Oliver] had been joined in England by Napoleon whose Birmingham studio, Sarony & Co operated from premises in New Street from 1864 until after 1880
  • [Napoleon] returned to America, and his New York in Union Square studio opened in 1866 or 1867

NOTE: I left out references to the famous copyright lawsuit 1883/84, Sarony vs. Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, which being a legal case is well documented and reported online. I will include it in my timeline below, however, because I am able to illustrate it with both the original photograph and the derivative lithograph -- the latter of which I have not seen elsewhere online.

1821 - Napoleon Sarony born in Quebec

Everyone seems to agree on that point, though nobody has provided the name of either parent. Here is a copy of his baptism, showing that in fact he was christened Gustave Adolphe Napoleon Sarony. The year was 1821, but I don't see the exact date stated -- the year is actually on a separate sheet of paper. His parents were Adolphus Sarony and Marie Lehoullier (here the name is spelled with one L but their marriage record, which she signed in her own hand, shows two, and the clerk adds an I before the l's, but she does not sign that way). The marriage record shows they were married 29 January 1818, and his occupation is listed as clerk to perfumer Francis Lehoullier, who signs the marriage certificate as a witness and notes he is her uncle. Her father was Louis Lehoullier, farmer. Adolphus is listed as a single man aged 28, and Marie as a spinster aged 25. Adolphus, then, would have been born about 1790. Was he at Waterloo just 2-1/2 years before this marriage? It's possible, we have no evidence on that yet. But if he did, which side was he on? In the 1880 census, Napoleon shows his parents as being from Canada and Prussia -- though they are reversed from what we would expect, the father from Canada and mother from Prussia. Of course those details are not very reliable, indeed his son Otto shows both his parents as being from France. And naturalization documents apparently for Napoleon's father Adlphus (see below) show him as being from Prussia. In any case, I think we can dismiss any notion that Napoleon's father was a lithographer -- he is listed as a clerk to a perfumer at the time of his wedding, and a merchant at the time of Napoleon's birth. Adolphus (or Adolphe as he signs some records) was certainly a fan of Napoleon, naming his son with that moniker and his first daughter (born 1818, the year of his marriage) was named Adolphine M Antoinette Sarony.

Baptismal certificate for Gustave Adolphe Napoleon Sarony

1830s - 1831 - 1836 Moved to New York from Canada

Not much agreement on the exact date, but consensus on the early 1830s it seems. We have another document in which Napoleon himself weighs in on the subject, his passport application in 1856:

Passport application for Napoleon Sarony

While this has relevance to later in our timeline, regarding his trip to Europe, it also shows his own statement about when he immigrated to the USA: 1833. The passport application states:

I Napoleon Sarony do hereby and truly swear that I am a citizen of the United States that I was born in Quebec, Canada East in the year 1821 that I came to the United States in the year 1833 at the age of 12 years that my father was naturalized in the City of New York previous to my attaining the age of 21 years and that I was a Citizen by nature of his naturalization. Sworn to before me, Dec 18, 1856...

By implication he came with his father, though that record does not have any information regarding his mother -- did she emigrate too, as one source above suggested, or did she die in Canada? That is another route of investigation still open to further work.

Ah, but things are never simple, and one source -- even one so relevant, does not constitute proof. We also have a naturalization record for one Adolphus Sarony, aged 40, dated 1831. Napoleon's father would turn 41 that year, is it the same person? Seems likely, it is an uncommon name. The document states he is a US citizen (how?) and resides in New York city. There is also a card index record for the naturalization that includes additional information: that he is a merchant, and former citizen of Prussia. For the following year, 1832, we have a ship list showing an Adolphus Sarony arriving from Le Havre in the port of New York, aged 41, gentleman, resident and citizen of USA. So the naturalization record was undoubtedly created because he was leaving the country on a voyage to Europe, and he returned the next year. Is this Napeolon's father? Seems a good fit in many regards ... but it needs further research to say for sure.

1831 naturalization record for Adolph Sarony

Another 1831 naturalization record for Adolph Sarony

1832 ship arrival record for Adolph Sarony

1836-1842 Worked as a lithographer for Nathaniel Currier

Sorry, I can not confirm or refute this - I have not really researched it much, as it is the photographic career of Sarony that interests me. Contributions of evidence in this regard welcome. The only records I have regarding that period are a second-hand listing from the 1839-40 New York City Directory for Adolphus Sarony living at 7 Warren; and a notice from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 1932, which states that Adolphus Sarony died 3/8/1841.

Nor have I found any evidence in regard to Hannavy's report that Oliver and Napoleon were exploring photography so early as 1841. If Oliver opened a studio in New York that year it would seem Craig's Daguerreian Registry would mention it -- his research in that area and era was extensive. But he makes no mention of Oliver Sarony. That is another area in need of further research.

1843 or 1846 Napoleon and James or Henry Major started the lithography firm of Napoleon and Major

Another issue I have not looked into in any detail. A quick look at lithographs bearing that imprint did not bring up any dated prior to 1846.

1846 - 1848 Napoleon Sarony married Ellen Major

Well according to The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, they were married March 11, 1848. That same source notes another interesting marriage that year, Flora A. Sarony married Henry B. Major on April 26, 1848. Given the rest of the history, it seems highly probable that Flora was Napoleon's sister, and thus Henry B Major was not only his business partner, but also his brother-in-law. If Ellen Major was Henry's sister, that would make them twice-brother-in-laws. None of that have I researched yet, but it is on my to-do list. According to the 1850 census, both Ida and Ellen were aged 20 in 1850, so if they were married in 1846 as Hannavy has it, Ellen would have been only 16 years old. Still, an earlier date might prove more convenient when we observe that Ida was aged 2 in the 1850 census, and so probably born in 1848. A single, secondary source is not very strong evidence however, so I'm not ready to state with any surety which marriage date is correct.

Here is the 1850 census. Note that it also lists a 20 year old Margaret Sarony, born in Ireland. That may be a mistake and she should be listed under a different surname, or she is a cousin of some sort. Charlotte Swanton and her two children are also in the household, her maiden name may have been Major or Sarony.

1850 Census listing for Henry Major, Napoleon Sarony and families

1855-1858 Ellen Sarony dies, Napoleon and his children go to Europe

Most of our sources agree that Ellen died in 1858, Schmidt being most specific in stating it was January 1858. Here again The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, has conflicting data, stating that she died 12/02/1855. The source used by those stating 1858 is apparently the online records for Green Wood Cemetery, where both Napoleon and Ellen are buried in the same lot, which states she was buried January 15, 1858. The question of which date is correct bears on the motivation and timing of Napoleon's trip to Europe, which most sources seem to think took place in 1858. But clearly he was planning the the trip before that, as witnessed by his passport application, shown above, dated December 1856.

1857 Napoleon Sarony opens a daguerreian studio in Yonkers

This is originally from Craig's Daguerreian Registry. Unfortunately Craig, like many of our web sources cited above, gives no source citation for this information. I have not found the original source for this yet. He does mention that Sarony went to Europe in 1858 and returned in 1864 -- a return date two years earlier than most of our other sources.

1864 - 1866 Sarony returns from Europe and opens a New York Studio at 630 Broadway - 680 Broadway - 37 Union Square

Well I think we can dismiss this early date as the opening of the Union Square studio, there are plenty of Sarony imprints around that have the Broadway address. At least the 680 Broadway address, I have not found any for 630 Broadway, though there are several references to such images in archives. The problem is, with the small print common on imprints from the 1860s, it is often hard to distinguish between 630 and 680. The suggestion that he moved is, I think, a supposition, that ignores the possibility that the street was simply renumbered, and the studio address changed.

Knowing when the change from 630 to 680 occurred would be a great aid in dating Sarony photographs, but I have not found any records yet that specify the change. It was certainly prior to 1869, as the New York directory for that year lists Sarony and Company at 680 Broadway.

None of our biographies mention the fact that Sarony operated as Sarony & Co from at least 1868 to 1870-72. His partner was Alfred S Campbell, who is said to have returned with Sarony when he came back from Europe in 1866. I have yet to follow up on this lead. This 1871 Sarony ad (which shows Sarony, not Sarony and Co) also has on the same page an ad for Campbell and Hecker at Union Square -- I wonder if that is Alfred S Campbell? Campbell started the Alfred S. Campbell Art Company in Elizabeth NJ about this time.

1871-72 advert from: The Hotel Guests' Guide for the city of New York 1871-2, Wm P Cleary & Co: New York 1871.

1871 - 1877 Sarony moves to studio at 37 Union Square

This is the the 'factoid' that got me started on this whole thing. Most sources online agree that Sarony moved to 37 Union Square in 1871 -- some say 'late 1871'. I can prove it was several years later than that. I suspect the correct date was May 1st 1877. But let's look at the evidence.

Here is a copy of a letter (from the Schmidt article cited above) Sarony wrote to Samuel 'Mark Twain' Clemens in September of 1871, inviting him to visit the Sarony studio to have his portrait taken. I guess that is why Schmidt adds the 'late' qualifier to the 1871 date for the move.

Letter to Clemens from Sarony September 1871 on 680 Broadway letterhead

And here is a photograph from the Sarony studio, noting that he will be moving May 1st -- though unfortunately he does not mention what year! After the large script Sarony is the notice that: Will Remove May 1st to 37 UNION SQUARE.

Actress Clara Morris portrait on card noting pending studio move

So he could not have moved late in 1871, if the move was in May. Perhaps it was May 1872? Here are three more cards -- the first is a portrait of William Cullens Bryant that has an 1873 copyright -- barely legible in this scan, we will have to take the vendor's word for it that it really is 1873. The second image has a similar imprint and a dated inscription on back Feby 12 - 75. The third is also inscribed with a date, Dec 8 / 75.

1873 copyright notice on Bryant portrait

February 1875 inscription on photo from Broadway studio

December 1875 imprint on photo from Broadway studio

OK, so the copyright is hard to read and may be wrong, and the inscriptions could be considered untrustworthy. How about this, from Trow's New York City Directory 1876 (copyright 1875):

Sarony, Napoleon, photographs, 680 Broadway, h St Julien h
Sarony, Otto, photographs, 680 Broadway, h Yonkers

Trow's New York City Directory 1878 (copyright 1877) shows:

Sarony, Napoleon, photographs, 37 Union Square

Clearly, Sarony moved on May 1st 1876 or 1877. Here is why I suspect it was 1877. First, there is an archival record:

Letter to T H Huxley from SHAW, T P, 16 September 1876
Sent from New York, USA

Asks Huxley to be photographed at his Studio, Sarony, 680 Broadway
Creator Huxley, Thomas Henry
Control 26.71
Date range 16 September 1876
Formats General Correspondence
Inventory Identifier 26.71 Box Number 26 Series 1s


Now that seems a bit confused to me, it is from T P Shaw, not Sarony, and the creator is cited as Huxley, who was the recipient. In any case, the date and address would seem to rule out May 1876 as the date of the move.

Also from an index to letters, diaries, oral histories and personal narratives, we find this intriguing paragraph:

February steals upon us, with the Hutchinson Family appearing regularly in their rooms, 37 Union Square (an address sacred to us, after May, 1877, as the seat of Sarony's photography gallery). On February 27th, let me anticipate by stating, the Hutchinsons availed themselves of the aid of Annie E. Watson and J. J. Watson (humourist).

FROM: though that link does not work for us now ...

So I think it highly probable, though unproven, that Sarony moved into his new studio on May 1st 1877. Certainly, it was no more than a year earlier than that, and no later than the following year, for we find that:

At the beginning of July 1878, Whitman was invited by Napoleon Sarony to sit for a group of portraits. ... Whitman was flattered to be asked and on July 6, 1878, sat for nine photographs. ... As for Whitman, he wrote Harry Stafford on the afternoon after the sitting at "the great photographic establishment" at 37 Union Square only that he "had a real pleasant time."


1883/84, Sarony vs. Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company

When the Burrow-Giles Lithographic company used a photograph of Oscar Wilde by Sarony as the basis for a trade card, Sarony sued for copyright infringement. He won the case, establishing precedant for the applicability of copyright law to photographic images. You can read a brief summary of the case on WikiPedia. Here is a copy of the original photo -- and the Burrow-Giles lithograph:

Sarony portrait of Oscar Wilde and derivative lithograph

1885 - 1896 Sarony moves from Union Square to 256 Fifth Avenue

Schmidt is the only one of our several sources to state Sarony moved his studio to Fifth Avenue in April 1896. I don't where she got that, but I think she is right -- certainly the images show that the move was in the mid-1890s, not the mid-1880s. Here are a couple examples of 1890s images with the old Union Square address, the first one signed 17 April 1895, the second showing the high sleeve-puffs of the early 1890s:

Signed portrait from 37 Union Square dated 17 April 1895

Actress Maude Adams in early 1890s style

While working out this chronology, I began to construct a roughly dated typology for the various Sarony imprints. Of course, given his custom of photographing famous people, there are probably many cases where imprints post-date the actual photograph by many years. Still, it would be interesting to be able to date the prints within a two or three year span, and I think that is possible in many cases. Watch for that in an upcoming article, this one is long enough!

Copyright © 2006 - 2017 by Andrew J. Morris                       CONTACT