Note: this is the third piece in a short series on Lola Montez. The first article, “Lola Montez as a ‘Western Woman’?” provides an introduction to Lola Montez, and the second article, “The Showgirl ‘Full of Sin’ or ‘Respectable Theatre’?”, focuses on her role in popular culture of the Gold Rush era.
Central to Lola’s self-promotion was the dissemination of her image, primarily in the form of daguerreotypes and lithographs after daguerreotypes. Newspaper reviews and caricatures of her act circulated internationally, and her several sittings for daguerreotypes gave her a moderate sense of agency in constructing her portrait to counter her portrayal as lascivious in popular media. In these she demonstrated her oscillation between daring free-thinking associated with the frontier past of California and her understanding that she needed a façade of respectability to be tolerated by the reformers and civilizing forces increasing in 1853.
The first image of the starlet’s likeness that established her as a great beauty was a portrait painted for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and it was reproduced in lithography form, circulating at the same time as many of the crude caricatures of Lola in the press. By the time she arrived in America, the daguerreotype was in vogue and the new medium allowed her to exercise more control over her representation, transgressing Victorian era gender conventions and occasionally retreating to more virtuous depictions of herself to maintain a moderate level of decency.
Within a week of landing in the United States in New York, she visited a daguerreotypists’ studio for her first photographic portrait, and she continued to have her likeness captured at every opportunity. Her second and third daguerreotypes taken in the United States were particularly racy, challenging racial and gender conventions of North America. The second daguerreotype features Lola linking arms with an Indian chief, and the third pictures Lola with a cigarette in her fingers, the first photograph taken of a woman smoking.
The first portrait that initiated the proliferation of visual material surrounding her persona depicted Lola’s beauty and her vivacity but largely presented her as a respectable lady. When Lola first became the mistress of King Ludwig I, the king insisted on having the court painter, Joseph Karl Stieler, paint a portrait of Lola for his Gallery of Beauties in his Nymphenburg palace in Munich (Figure 2). Wearing a black velvet dress with a metal belt, white Spanish lace collar and black lace headpiece, Lola’s dress in the portrait suggests her Spanish heritage, the frock even recalling Spanish Catholic costume. The pop of bright red in the couch, the flowers tucked behind her right ear, and her lips gestures to her daring character, but the portrait largely represents Lola as a universal beauty. The exhibition context of this portrait as hanging beside 26 other portraits of genteel women Ludwig admired for their beauty further affirmed the work of this portrait as portraying Lola as a proper and attractive woman. Lithographs after this portrait were produced and circulated widely, spreading the notion of Lola as a Spanish beauty capable of enchanting kings with her feminine wiles. Other caricatures, such as one showing Lola performing with a whip in hand and Jesuit priests cowering behind her, visualized rumors about her wielding power through her sensual act, like a femme fatale.
Responding to the flood of press reports and cartoons depicting her as vulgar or unsavory, Lola first used daguerreotypes in an attempt to redeem her reputation. Having just arrived to New York for a run on Broadway, she immediately visited the studio of the Meade Brothers to have her daguerreotype taken. In conventional Victorian dress and a white Spanish lace veil, Lola visually appears to fulfill ideals of womanhood. She was pleased by the medium for how it captured her likeness directly, without the mediation of a flattering portrait artist or a suggestive caricaturist. She ordered lithographs after the demure daguerreotypes from the sitting, intending to circulate this accurate image of herself, and she wrote atop one copy she sent back to the Meade brothers, “I consider this lithograph the best likeness I have yet taken of myself.” But her insistence on her ladylike character waned, and she became more interested in showing her daring side.
In the following months, she traveled throughout the Eastern seaboard and had more opportunities to have her daguerreotype taken, ready to experiment with her self-representation and let her quirks be captured. Her engagement after New York was at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, and upon arriving in this new city, she again visited a daguerreotypist. She happened upon a group of Plains Indians, delegates from Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho tribes, who were returning from a conference with President Fillmore in Washington, and she reportedly begged the photographer, Marcus A. Root, to let her pose with one. He conceded, and the final product provocatively shows Lola arm-in-arm with an Indian chief. The fact that they were photographed as sitting together was a violation of decorum for Anglo American women. Lola’s gaze towards the chief and his gaze out to the viewer also suggest a relationship between her and the Indian, and her light skin and white lace scarf draw the eye to her figure, as if to imply she was responsible for the arrangement captured in the daguerreotype.
Lola then tried to use the daguerreotype to create a scandal about the decency of her posing with an Indian and the implicit relations from their daguerreotype. She reported to the press, that the Indian chiefs had come to town to visit her, and that the one who posed with her for the daguerreotype had fallen desperately in love with her. Several days later, the New York Herald published a letter to the editor in which a Native American reader clarified that the Indian chiefs were en route from Washington and had coincidentally been visiting the daguerreotype studio at the same time as Lola. Thus, in her typical fashion, she stirred controversy and attempted to harness the veracity associated with daguerreotypes to create intrigue surrounding her cross-racial appeal, in doing so, also defying gendered and racial social codes of behavior.
Months later, she took her third and most provocative and widely recognized daguerreotype, the image of her smoking. In Boston in 1852, she was welcomed to the daguerreotype studio of Southworth and Hawes. The pair captured daguerreotypes of key intellectual and artistic personalities, thus, Lola’s appointment in their studio was a clear signal of her status as a celebrity. The most well known of their daguerreotypes from this sitting shows Lola standing and resting her arms on a fabric covered table. Her wrists are crossed, a gesture of elegance, but she holds a cigarette between her gloved fingers, a particularly controversial detail given that it was not proper for women to smoke in public, let alone be photographed participating in such a gentlemanly activity.
Her facial expression in the portrait is one of indifference and hardness, her cocked head and her arched eyebrows creating a sense of intrigue. Her sharp facial features are softened slightly by her dark brown ringlets on either side of her face and her lace scarf. This intricate lace ornamental fabric around her collar contrasts starkly with her dark overcoat, and the lace and the cigarette are the two brightest whites in the image, drawing the eye to these contrasting symbols of femininity and hardness. The two patterned fabrics, the large floral decoration on her skirt and the plaid fabric on which she rests her hands serve also to represent soft femininity and stiffness, respectively. Her fashionable clothing and hairstyle give her the sense of being genteel and respectable, but this impression is countered by her brazen depiction of herself as an uninhibited smoker.
This audacity is consistent with reports of her strolling down streets in European cities and American cities with a cigarette in her mouth, indifferent to the conventions of female behavior or consciously rebelling against Victorian era constraints. Her nonconformity was attributed to her foreignness, but her image also worked to perpetuate associations of smoking to amoral and lascivious behavior, given her scandalous “Spider Dance” and her reputation for taking many lovers.
After 1852, as she travelled to San Francisco and around other cities in California and then back to New York in 1856, Lola had other daguerreotypes taken that were less outrageous, tempering her scandalous reputation some. As in many of her earlier daguerreotypes, she is fully clothed in black frocks and wears a white lace veil and shawl around her head and shoulders in both of these similar portraits. In both of these later daguerreotypes, her facial expressions seem slightly sinister, but the feminine qualities of the lace and floral pattern and her curls of hair soften her sharp facial features. In these images, she looks more stoic than smug, as she did in the 1852 daguerreotype of her smoking. The large swaths of delicate lace covering her have the overall effect of portraying her as a typical Victorian woman, but the demure pose and costume is contrasting by Lola’s harsh visage. The generous draping of the white lace fabric, transparent over the black frock so as to allow the black underneath to emphasize the floral pattern in conjunction with her unamused facial expression can be understood to embody Lola’s approach to negotiating propriety during the mid-Gold Rush period of reforms: she thinly veiled her attempts to follow Victorian conventions to avoid being reproached but simultaneously let her face reveal both her displeasure of such constraining codes of conduct and her inner free-thinking personality.
Read more about Lola Montez:
This is the third piece in a short series on Lola Montez. The first article, “Lola Montez as a ‘Western Woman’?” provides an introduction to Lola Montez, and the second article, “The Showgirl ‘Full of Sin’ or ‘Respectable Theatre’?”, focuses on her role in popular culture of the Gold Rush era.
 Diane L. Day, “Lola Montez and Her American Image,” History of Photography 5, no. 4 (1981): 339–53.
 Bruce Seymour, Lola Montez : A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 98.
 Day, “Lola Montez and Her American Image,” 340.
 Seymour, Lola Montez, 151.
 Ibid., 285. For more on the daguerreotypists the Meade Brothers, see John Hannavy, “Meade, Charles Richard and Henry W. M.,” Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography (Routledge, December 16, 2013).
 Lithograph of Lola Montez, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.
 Seymour, Lola Montez, 289.
 Melissa Banta, A Curious & Ingenious Art : Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard (Iowa City: Published for the Harvard University Library by the University of Iowa Press, 2000), 87.
 Seymour, Lola Montez, 290.