Recent construction has revealed the ghostly remnants of an ad applied to the side of 37 Union Square West.
The ornate sign, partially obscured by a window frame, was illegible on its own, but a Library of Congress image of Union Square West from 1894 shows a clearer view of the same swirly signature, which reads Sarony. Below his signature, an even fainter “Portraits” is (barely) visible.
Napoleon Sarony was a Canadian-born artist and lithographer living in New York. He moved to Europe in the 1850s for formal artistic training and later learned wet plate photography from his brother, a successful commercial photographer in England.
In 1866, he moved back to New York with the intention of starting a photo supply office. Instead, he returned to photography, focusing on celebrity portraits. In 1871, he expanded his business to 37 Union Square West. The space served as a studio, gallery, and salon d’art.
It was there that he set up elaborate backdrops to photograph some of the largest stars of the time (his images of Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain among the most iconic). He would pay celebrities for the exclusive rights to their portraits and sell the reproductions. He published his cabinet cards on site, each marked with the same Sarony signature that hung outside the building.
His portraits became so popular that his style was often mimicked or outright copied. In 1884, Sarony successfully sued the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company for selling unauthorized lithographs of this Oscar Wilde portrait. The landmark case extended copyright protection to photography, and Sarony v. Burrow Lithograph helped establish photography as an artistic expression rather one of mere reproduction.
Sarony moved his main gallery to Fifth Avenue in 1885 and sold off his back stock of negatives to a former rival before his death in 1896.
A Berenice Abbott photo from 1938 shows the building with its post-Sarony exterior.
At some point in the 1950s or 60s, the building was recovered with the strange facade that remains today. The fading Sarony Portraits might be covered up again, but for now a little piece of history peaks out.