Despite the many style changes that Oscar would go through before his tragic and premature death in 1900, it is these pictures by Napoleon Sarony that have created the image that we have of him today.Public Domain/Napoleon Sarony

The three trials of Oscar Wilde in London in 1895 proved to be both sensational at the time and a source of fascination for subsequent generations of writers. What is less known is that Oscar – or his image – had been at the center of another trial over a decade earlier, and on a different continent.

In 1882, Oscar Wilde had undertaken a lecturing tour of the United States. While in New York, Oscar, the acknowledged poster boy for the aesthetic movement, had his photograph taken by a leading celebrity photographer in the city, Napoleon Sarony.

The unauthorized use of one of these photographs became the cause of a Supreme Court case, which is still cited today, and which led to legislation making photographs copyrightable works.

Those now-iconic images of Oscar Wilde were taken by Napoleon Sarony in his Union Square studio in New York City. It was one of Wilde’s first stops when he arrived in America, on a tour financed by theater impresario D’Oyly Carte to promote “Patience,” a comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. The lead character in “Patience” was Bunthorne, and it was Oscar’s job to be seen in New York in the character of Bunthorne – a “fleshy” aesthetic poet. It is this version of Oscar – in silk stockings, velvet jacket, and with long hair, that we now recollect when we think of him. And it was this invented version of Oscar that was created and permanently captured in those Sarony photographs.

Despite the many style changes that Oscar would go through before his tragic and premature death in 1900, it is these pictures that have created the image that we have of Oscar Wilde today – but their impact actually reaches further.

Napoleon Sarony was an artist by trade, later a lithographer, and then, ultimately, a celebrity photographer. He would pay a fee to the leading actors and celebrities of the day to take their photographs, which he then sold as cards. Sarony’s contracts with his clients gave him the right to sell cards with their images on, and it also banned them from sitting for any other photographers. Hence no other photographs exist of Oscar’s one-year sojourn in the United States.

Sarony’s business model relied heavily his ability to use these pictures exclusively, making use of the Copyright Act of 1865, which was the first United States Act of Congress to allow a photographer to copyright a photograph. Despite this legislation, the common understanding of photographs was that they were mere replications of the real world and not artistic or expressive in nature, and thus not deserving of copyright protection. In this way, the law proved to be far ahead of the times.

In 1883, a well-known NYC department store used one of Sarony’s photographs of Oscar (Image 18, see below) to advertise hats, even though Oscar was not wearing a hat in the picture. Sarony sued. The defense claimed that the photographs were merely representations of the living world. They also mounted a constitutional challenge, claiming that the Congress had surpassed its constitutional powers in enacting the 1865 legislation. The Justices, however, believed otherwise. In their opinion, Napoleon Sarony had created these artistic images. Moreover, they ruled that Oscar Wilde, as seen in these photographs, was Sarony’s “intellectual invention.”

When Oscar Wilde posed for these now-infamous pictures in 1882, he did so in a quest to raise his profile in the US. Instead, these photographs came to define our memory of the artist as a young man. Less well known is that American legal history was also made.

Professor Christine Kinealy is the Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. She is the author of a number of books on the Great Hunger. Siobhán Kinealy has recently received a J.D. from Rutgers School of Law. They also happen to be mother and daughter, with a shared interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde.