Facial Hair Friday: On the Trail of Otto Von Bismarck

Otto Von Bismarck is known for unifying Germany in 1871 and serving as its first chancellor. Before unification, the region was a collection of small German-speaking states. As chancellor, Bismarck focused on building a powerful united country with a strong national identity, thus making the new Germany a major European powerhouse. He was in office until 1890, which makes him the longest serving German chancellor to this today. 

In the collection of the famous photographer (and previous subject of Facial Hair Friday) Mathew Brady, there is a photograph of an engraving of Bismarck. Looking at the photo I couldn’t help but wonder why Brady had a photo of a portrait of Bismarck? I reached out to our photo guru, Nick Natanson, in our Still Pictures Branch in College Park, and he said he has never come across anything shedding light on Brady’s decision to photograph the Bismarck portrait.

He explained the Bismarck reproduction is not the only instance where Brady—or one of his photographers—reproduced artwork, whether an engraving, a painting, a sculpture, or a medal. Our Brady photographs include a portrait of members of Tammany Hall and a medal featuring Cornelius Vanderbilt (both of which feature extensive facial hair!). The National Archives has a few of these kinds of photographs in our Brady Studio series, so while not completely rare, it wasn’t all that common either. 

However, what is interesting about the Bismarck photo is the lack of an obvious connection to the United States. Whereas the Tammany Hall portrait and the Vanderbilt medal have obvious connections to prominent Americans, the Bismarck connection to the U.S. is not as evident. Bismarck never came to the United States, and his most famous quote about the country isn’t exactly glowing: “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.”

I started looking around and found a portrait of Bismarck done by artist Carl Bersch at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Bersch was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S., eventually ending up in Washington, DC, in the early 1860s. He is known for his sketch of President Abraham Lincoln being carried from the Ford’s Theatre after being shot by John Wilkes Booth.

However, I also found he worked at Mathew Brady’s studio! So, that at least is a little clue to why we would have the photograph. And gives me a couple more facial hair subjects for the collection!

For more information on the Brady photographs in the National Archives read the blog, “Brady’s Lens: The Civil War and the Mathew Brady Collection in the National Archives.”

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