In January 1882, Oscar Wilde arrived in New York to begin his American lecture tour. To the custom officer’s usual question, he is said to have answered: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” This often repeated comment may be more legend than truth, but it fit the narrative of the time of Wilde as a brilliant literary celebrity from across the Atlantic come to grandly edify the American public—and it continues to fit our own era’s narrative of Wilde as a self-fashioned creature and master of publicity. Accordingly, soon after disembarking, he arranged to have his portrait taken by Napoleon Sarony, then the city’s preeminent portrait photographer. Sarony claimed to have photographed “200,000 people, 30,000 of whom were famous.” (from Laurence DuMortier’s “Oscar Wilde’s Multitudes: Against Limiting His Photographic Iconography”)
“Nothing to declare but my genius”: this witty statement defines “genius” in a traditional, Romantic fashion. [Our linked resource on “Oscar Wilde in America” offers a detailed discussion of this mythical quotation’s provenance.] Only months later, Wilde was involved in a lawsuit that set the stage for our contemporary understanding of intellectual property. From the world of fame to the world of celebrity: Oscar Wilde’s life spanned the transition….
Below is a commercial image, the source of the first (but not the last!) famous legal case involving the image of Oscar Wilde.
This photograph is the central exhibit in the case of “Burrow-Giles v Sarony.” The former were a lithographic company who produced the advertising image attached here; the latter was the portrait photographer Napoleon Sarony, who had taken that photograph of Wilde, originally known as “Oscar Wilde No. 18,” along with about 50 others.
Michael North has written about a related use of Sarony’s images, one by a cigar company. (The image below, of a collectable cigar card from 1882 featuring Wilde, is drawn from his article.) North comments on the Burrow-Giles decision as follows (North, “”The Picture of Dorian Gray,”” 186):
In making its decision, the Court had to contend …with the challenge that photography poses to traditional definitions of artistic creativity. Burrow-Giles argued that a photograph cannot be protected by copyright because it is the result of a mechanical operation, an automatic process, and thus is not a truly authored work. By this argument, a photograph is merely a copy struck from reality … The Court held, however, that the taking of a photograph can, though it need not always, involve “novelty, invention, originality” …
Our short reading from the New York Times, an article which was published before the case was decided, asked in its headline the provocative question “Did Sarony Invent Wilde?”
I want us to think about Wilde as a figure who was aware of his own image from the very beginning; and to (re) introduce questions of originality and property: who owns (literally, metaphorically) the image of an author? Does it seem right that Wilde (who was not, himself, interested in this American legal case…) had no ownership rights in these images? Did Sarony invent Wilde?