Remembrance of Things Past
Tom E. Hinson Curator of Photography
Selected mainly from the museum collection, France at the Dawn of Photography features 55 images created primarily during the 1850s into the 1870s, a period of innovation that roughly coincides with the Second Empire (1852–1870). The show complements the major exhibition Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 with a compelling visual record of France when Gauguin was just beginning as an artist.
In 1839 the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre developed the first practical photographic process, the daguerreotype, with its beguiling clarity of detail; but by the early 1850s this process was supplanted by paper and glass negatives. For the next three decades both amateur and professional photographers covered a panorama of subjects from scientific to artistic, at once creating and satisfying the explosive popular demand for pictures of the current world.
Photography’s ability to capture a likeness quickly and economically made portraiture big business, expanding from individual remembrances to illustrations for literature and a reference tool for painters and sculptors. In the public sphere, portraits of celebrities became extremely popular. Perhaps the most accomplished and influential portraitist was Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), whose friendship attracted the most accomplished painters, writers, and intellectuals in Paris to his studio. Nadar and the writer Alexandre Dumas hoped to pen a play together, but the iconic portrait of Dumas made in November 1855 was their only artistic collaboration. Seated casually, hands folded comfortably on his cane, Dumas addressed Nadar with a direct and lively expression. The portrait reflects Nadar’s remarkable ability to evoke a sitter’s personality, and indeed his portraits help to define our impression of France in the second half of the 19th century.
In the next section of the exhibition, photographs of old and new Paris include four by Charles Marville. From the 1860s until his death in 1879, Marville received many commissions; in the mid 1870s he recorded the street lamps installed at the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, who expanded the boulevards and increased the number of sidewalks. Marville’s composition, lighting, and printing are easily appreciated in Opéra (Rostral Column), an impressive triangular composition of a line of street lamps. At the 1878 Paris World’s Fair 100 of his photographs were displayed, confirming the new designation of Paris as the City of Lights.
Another section features the gardens, forests, and fields of France. In the late 1840s photographers began to join painters in rendering the landscape, which became increasingly important in French photographic theory and practice. Through landscape, pioneering photographers, often trained as painters, created studies of atmospheric luminosity expressed in delicately nuanced prints. One of the most inventive and influential French photographers of the 1850s, Gustave Le Gray was among the first photographers to work in the forest of Fontainbleau; his landmark studies made between 1849 and 1857 display remarkable virtuosity in conveying the feeling of nature. In work kin to the painting of Corot, Daubigny, and Millet—who also worked at Fontainbleau—Le Gray solved the technical problems of photographing greenery and dark areas, and exploited the visual effects of light and atmosphere. In the enchanting scene shown here, the viewer is drawn almost magnetically into a carriage trail surrounded by a dense archway of trees with sparkling sunlight filtering through the softly defined leaves.
Rural life—villages, inhabitants, and laborers—became a popular subject at this time. Photographers were attracted to genre scenes of simple peasant life, as visual aids for artists or simply for intrinsic beauty. In Courtyard with Painters an unidentified photographer has captured a wealth of detail in an intimate slice of 19th-century village life in northern France: two artists work at easels, a group of peasant laborers tackle mounds of dirty laundry, and an innkeeper poses proudly outside his ivy-bedecked establishment. A luminous glow pervades the center of the scene. The photograph is also an absorbing formal study, with its crispness of detail and engaging play of light and shadow.
France at the Dawn of Photography is a snapshot record of France during the Second Empire: the grandeur of its capital city, the beauty of its natural resources, and the vitality of its population. It also testifies to the potential of the new medium as a vivid factual record and means of artistic expression.
Cleveland Art, November 2009