Widely regarded as the finest collection of photographs in private hands, the Gilman Paper Company Collection has played a central role in establishing photography's historical canon and has long set the standard for connoisseurship in this field. Recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, the Gilman Collection comprises more than 8,500 photographs, including exceptional depth and richness in early French, British, and American photography, as well as masterpieces from the turn-of-the-century and modernist periods. This installation of nineteenth-century French photographs highlights one of the collection's great strengths and features forty rare and beautiful photographs by Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Édouard Baldus, Nadar, and Eugène Atget, among many others.
The earliest works reveal the remarkable beauty and technical mastery that French photographers—many of them trained as painters—achieved a mere decade after the invention of the medium. Landscapes suffused with deep swathes of evocative shadow, psychologically revealing portraits, elegantly seductive studies of the nude, and Romantic representations of France's ancient and medieval past demonstrate early photography's links to the painting and print traditions, as well as the ways in which the unique character and capacity of photography set its productions apart from all art that had come before. Together these works trace the rapid development of photography from the humble and intimate creations of gentlemen amateurs to ambitious artistic expressions of Second Empire grandeur.
Among the highlights are Gustave Le Gray's light-dappled Forest of Fontainebleau (ca. 1856) and dramatic seascape Mediterranean Sea at Sète (1856–59); Nadar's lively portrait of Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870); photographs by Edouard Baldus, including his proto-Impressionist Group at the Chateau de la Faloise of 1857; views of medieval architecture by Le Gray and Henri Le Secq, including the latter's Wooden Staircase at Chartres (1852); and a suite of photographs made in Egypt by Félix Teynard, John Beasley Greene, Maxime Du Camp, and Ernst Benecke. The exhibition concludes with a selection of works demonstrating photography's broad reach by the end of the nineteenth century, encompassing an astronomer's record of the stars, police mug shots, and architects' construction views.
A new selection of approximately twenty photographs from the Gilman Collection will be on view in an upcoming installation, divided into three parts, each of which is indicative of a particular strength of the collection. The first section will feature nineteenth-century British photographs, including a portrait (ca. 1853) by photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn of his daughter peering into a microscope. The image is emblematic of early photography's position at the intersection of science and art. The second section will focus on the theme of slavery and abolitionism in nineteenth-century America and will include Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia (ca. 1863) by the Union soldier and photographer Andrew Joseph Russell and the moving group portrait Emancipated Slaves (1863) by Myron H. Kimball. The final section will present twentieth-century French photographs such as Henri Cartier-Bresson's Valencia, Spain (1933), which reveals the influence of both Cubism and Surrealism on the legendary street photographer, who died in August 2004.
Selected works from the Gilman Collection are also on view in two current and upcoming special exhibitions: All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860 and The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.