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Portraits from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

Portrait Prints of Men and Women of Science and Technology in the Dibner Library

George Sarton, a founder of the history of science as an academic discipline, argued that scholars should pay close attention to portraits. These images, he said, can give you "the whole man at once." With a "great portrait," Sarton believed, "You are given immediately some fundamental knowledge of him, which even the longest descriptions and discussions would fail to evoke." Sarton's ideas led Bern Dibner to purchase portrait prints of men and women of science and technology. Many of these are now in the Smithsonian's Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

Historians now know that portraits are more complex images than Sarton imagined, combining actual and fictionalized elements of the sitter's persona. Many portraits place the sitter in a social context–garments play a role here, as do pose, background, and associated objects (such things as books, scientific instruments, or industrial machinery). Some of these aspects of a portrait provide indications of intelligence, strength, or beauty. Some indicate the sitter's profession: navigators, for instance, are often shown holding a pair of dividers. And some refer to specific scientific or technological accomplishments.

Portrait prints were often the result of complex collaborations, and in most cases the records of these collaborations do not survive. Thus we do not know the extent to which a portrait print represents the ideas of the sitter, the artist who painted the original image, the patron who paid the artist, or the engraver who produced the plate. Some portrait prints were produced as separate images, meant to be framed and hung on the wall. Some were published as frontispieces to books. And some were published in biographical volumes devoted to noteworthy personages. Whatever their origin, however, we are grateful to Bern Dibner for having made these portrait prints available to us today.


Deborah Jean Warner
Curator, Physical Sciences Collection
National Museum of American History
Washington, D.C.

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