Jose Maria Mora (September 2, 1847 – October 18, 1926) was a Cuban-American portrait photographer active in New York City during the 1870s and 1880s. The son of wealthy Cuban landowners, Mora was living in Paris and training as a painter in 1868 when the start of the Ten Years’ War forced his family to flee their home in Havana and resettle in New York City.
Unable to continue his study of painting once he joined his family in New York, Mora found employment with celebrity photographer Napoleon Sarony who trained him in the photographic portrait business and the art of painted retouching –– an early form of photo-manipulation. After two years with Sarony, Mora founded his own portrait studio and went on to become a friendly rival to his former mentor and contemporary stage photographers such as Benjamin J. Falk.
Mora specialized in producing cabinet card portrait photographs of Gilded Age celebrities, including actors, opera performers, writers, and prominent members of New York City Society. He was the portraitist of choice for the New York Metropolitan Opera and Manhattan’s high-society costume balls during the 1870s and 1880s, and his photographs of comic actors, burlesque dancers, and clowns regularly appeared in the pages of illustrated newspapers such as the National Police Gazette. What set Mora’s work apart from competing photographers was his use of large-scale painted backdrops that made his subjects appear to be transported to exotic or fantastical locations.
Cabinet cards by Mora.
In 1893, abruptly and without explanation, Mora closed his studio at 707 Broadway. Some said that he went mad trying to restore the family fortune that had been lost in the aftermath of the revolution, but even now nobody knows for certain. For about 30 years, nothing was heard from or about Mora and his name gradually began to fade into obscurity.
This remained the case until a 1926 New York Times article painted a bleak picture of his life as a recluse in the Hotel Breslin (now the decidedly more posh Ace Hotel). Mora had lived there since 1911, surviving on a diet of 15 cent pies and whatever else fellow residents were generous enough to give. His padlocked room contained his only company – starving, half-dead pigeons. He surrounded himself with memories of a better time – yellowed newspapers and theater programs filled with the names of stars he had photographed decades before. Sadly, he was declared incompetent and died a few months later at St. Vincent’s Hospital, leaving nearly $200,000 untouched in his accounts.
Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones (Mary Cadwalader Rawle), Mrs. Francis C. Barlow, Miss Strong and Miss Sandy[?]. ca, 1875.
Mrs. August Belmont. ca. 1880.
Mrs. William Garner. ca. 1873.
Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (neé Alva Erskine Smith), 1883.
Mrs. August Belmont (neé Caroline Slidell Perry), 1883.