Cornelius's self-portrait. The back reads, "The first light picture ever taken."
March 1, 1809|
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||August 10, 1893
Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Resting place||Laurel Hill Cemetery|
|Occupation||Photographer, lamp manufacturer|
|Spouse(s)||Harriet Comly (m. 1832–93) (his death)|
Robert Cornelius (March 1, 1809 – August 10, 1893) was an American pioneer of photography and lamp manufacturer.
Early life and career
Cornelius was born in Philadelphia to Christian and Sarah Cornelius (née Soder). Cornelius' father had immigrated from Amsterdam in 1783 and worked as a silversmith before opening a lamp manufacturing company. Robert Cornelius attended private school as a youth, taking a particular interest in chemistry. In 1831, he began working for his father specializing in silver plating and metal polishing. He became so well renowned for his work, that shortly after, Cornelius was approached by Joseph Saxton to create a silver plate for his daguerreotype of Central High School in Philadelphia. It was this meeting that sparked Cornelius's interest in photography.
With his own knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, as well as the help of chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Cornelius attempted to perfect the daguerreotype. Around October 1839, at age thirty, Cornelius took a portrait of himself outside of the family store. The daguerreotype produced shows an off center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair. This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is the first known photographic portrait of a human in world history and the first known selfie. Daguerre's photograph of the Boulevard du Temple, taken one year earlier, depicts two human figures on the sidewalk, but these were incidental to the photograph as opposed to being the main subject.
Cornelius would operate two of the earliest photographic studios in the U.S. between 1841 and 1843, but as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, Cornelius either lost interest or realized that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company.
Cornelius married Harriet Comly (sometimes spelled Comely) in 1832. They had eight children, three sons and five daughters.
Later years and death
Cornelius retired from his family's business in 1877. In his later years, he lived at his country home in Frankford, Philadelphia. Cornelius was also an elder at the Presbyterian Church, where he was a member for fifty years. He died at his Frankford home on August 10, 1893.
- Meehan, Sean Ross (1 January 2008). Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. University of Missouri Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8262-6640-8.
- American Journal of Photography, Volume 14. Thos. H. McCollin & Company. 1893. p. 420.
- Hannavy, John, ed. (2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. p. 338. ISBN 1-135-87327-5.
- Cornelius, Ellanor Frances (1926). History of the Cornelius Family in America: Historical, Genealogical, Biographical; Containing a History of the Name from 212 B.C. and a Complete Genealogical Chart from 1639 to 1926, with Affiliated Families in Direct Line. Also Short Stories and Biographical Sketches and Illustrations. p. 37.
- Barger, M. Susan and White, William B. (2000). The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science. JHU Press. p. 33.
- Hannavy, John (December 16, 2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. p. 339. ISBN 978-1-135-87327-1.
- Hannavy 2013 p.340
- American Journal of Photography. Thos. H. McCollin & Company. 1893. p. 420.
- American Journal of Photography, Volume 14 1893 pp.420-422
- Society, American Philosophical (1893). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. p. 242.
- Smithsonian American Enterprise: A tour through storage brings an innovator to light
- Article from the April 1840 issue of Godey's Lady's Book
- Robert Cornelius at Find a Grave