Michael Snow
Clothed Woman (In Memory of my Father) 1963
oil and lucite on canvas
152 x 386.2 cm
Purchased 1966
National Gallery of Canada

19th-Century French Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada

Ottawa (Ontario) - February 4, 2010

From February 5 to May 16, 2010

New medium of photography embraced by artists, especially in France

Nowhere else in the world were so many trained artists testing the scope of the new medium of photography than in 19th-century France. These artists embraced photography and their experiments with a variety of techniques, formats and subject matter were unparalleled. In tribute to the contribution made by these photographers to the history of the medium, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) presents 19th-Century French Photographs, an exhibition of works from its permanent collection, on view from February 5 to May 16, 2010.

“The excitement generated by this brilliant new invention forever changed art,” said Marc Mayer, Director, NGC. “French photographers, many of whom were also skilled painters and engravers, were pioneers in developing the medium as a means of expression. With this exhibition, we are showcasing the breadth and depth of Canada’s exceptional collection of 19th-century French photography.”

19th-Century French Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada presents over 100 works by some 50 photographers. Subjects include portraiture, landscape, nude studies, street activities, architecture, archaeology, and records of war. The exhibition captures the variety of techniques explored by some of the major practitioners of the time, including daguerreotypes, salted paper, albumen silver, photogravure, and gelatin silver prints.

Fragile works get special treatment
Two works in this exhibition are bound albums of photographs: Félix Bonfils, Souvenirs d’Orient, Album pittoresque des sites, villes et ruines de la Terre-Sainte, 1878 and Maxime Du Camp, Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie, 1852. Because of their fragility, these albums will be on view in a display case. However, thanks to HP touch-enabled TouchSmart PCs, visitors will enjoy a rich interactive experience that allows them to flip through electronic versions of the books on a widescreen display with a multi-touch enabled screen located next to the original works. The National Gallery of Canada thanks HP Canada for its generous contribution making this interactive experience possible.

The daguerreotype
In January 1839, the French government published a new process for making pictures that was revolutionary. Painter and stage designer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre used the camera obscura (an optical principle that dates back to China and the Tang Dynasty) to make realistic impressions of subjects on copper plates coated with light-sensitive silver salts. With its jewel-like quality, minute tonal gradations and precise attention to infinite detail, the daguerreotype, as it was dubbed after its inventor, was an instant success with a public eager to have a record of the true likeness of themselves and their loved ones.

Unlike the modern photograph, which can be easily reproduced, these charming little objects were lovingly cared for as one-of-a-kind keepsakes. Although sitting perfectly still for anywhere from five to twenty minutes to have one’s portrait taken was an excruciating exercise, thousands were made in the 1840s and 50s until the daguerreotype process was completely replaced by paper photography. Precious examples on view include the intimate nude study Académie, c. 1845 by Félix Jacques A. Moulin and Wine Drinkers, c. 1852 by A. Le Blondel.

More exhibition highlights
Charles Nègre, Chimney Sweeps Walking, salted paper print, December 1851 – Nègre belongs to the first generation of painters-turned-photographers who saw photography as simply another means of making art. The subject matter in this work comes from the tradition among painters of depicting the street trades of Paris as romantically picturesque. Designing his own camera lenses, Nègre was one of the earliest photographers to capture motion. Such exploration astonished the art critics of the time, causing one of them to claim that this work was equal to a Rembrandt drawing.

Maxime Du Camp, Western Colossus of the Great Temple, Abu Simbel, Nubia, salted paper print, after 1849, printed 1852 – Journalist, novelist, poet and critic Maxime Du Camp together with his young friend, the not-yet-famous novelist Gustave Flaubert, set sail for Egypt in October 1849. Before leaving, Du Camp took a few lessons in paper photography from Gustave Le Gray because, as he said, "I had realized on my previous travels that I wasted much valuable time trying to draw buildings and scenery I did not care to forget. I draw slowly and not very correctly."

Gustave Le Gray, Great Wave - Sète, albumen silver print, 1857 – Le Gray, as well as others like Moulin and Nègre, was a member of the group of artists known as the Paris School. They were the early masters who formed the fertile ground from which grew the great harvest of 19th-century French photography. Implicit in this work, with the blurred motion of the cresting roller and the breaking waves on the beach, in contrast to the static nature of the quay, is the struggle between the forces of nature and the man-made.

Eugène Cuvelier, Forest of Fontainebleau, salted paper print, 1863 – One of the closest and most artistically rewarding relationships between painters and photographers occurred during the 1850s and 1860s in the Forest of Fontainebleau, where artists set up easels and camera tripods side by side to record the varied topography of the landscape. Cuvelier was one of these artists.

Étienne Carjat, Charles Baudelaire, c. 1863, woodburytype, printed 1878 – Writer Charles Baudelaire is France's most controversial 19th-century poet. Carjat provides one of the most unremittingly truthful portraits in the history of photography with this work. A masterpiece of psychological portraiture, the image is of a bitterly disillusioned man.

The exhibition ends with the work of Eugène Atget. Atget was one of the 19th-century French artists whose discoveries were to lead to some of the major art movements of the 20th-century. Although his career as a photographer began in the late 1880s and continued until his death in 1927, his 20th-century work may be seen as a continuation of the 19th-century photographer’s concerns.

Digital reproductions of the above-mentioned photographs as well as other works from the NGC’s permanent collection can be seen at cybermuse.gallery.ca, the NGC art education website. Simply enter the artist’s name in the search feature.

Meet the curator
Sunday March 7, at 2 pm – Visit the exhibition with James Borcoman, Curator Emeritus, NGC. Included with Gallery admission.

A fully-illustrated catalogue, with an introductory essay by exhibition curator James Borcoman and in-depth entries on each photograph, accompanies the exhibition. It is available online and in person in the NGC’s Bookstore for $49.

About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art in the world. In addition, it has pre-eminent collections of Indigenous, Western and European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, American and Asian Art as well as drawings and photography. Created in 1880, it is among the oldest of Canada’s national, cultural institutions. As part of its mandate to make Canadian art accessible across the country, the NGC has one of the largest touring exhibition programs in the world.

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Marie Lugli
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Public Relations Officer
National Gallery of Canada

Josée-Britanie Mallet
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National Gallery of Canada