Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820–1884)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
10 1/2 x 13 in. (26.7 x 33 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (2005.100.49)
For six weeks in August, September, and October 1857, 25,000 men from the French Imperial Guard, renowned for their victory in the decisive battle of the Crimean War two years earlier, conducted exercises under the command of Napoleon III to inaugurate a vast military camp at Châlons-sur-Marne. Le Gray was commissioned to take photographs of the camp, the inaugural events, and the officers. The pictures were later bound in albums and presented by the emperor to his highest-ranking officers.
The skillfully executed maneuvers, like the imperial celebrations, religious services, and elaborate entertainments that also marked the inaugural weeks, were intended as much for the pleasure of the emperor and the thousands of day-trippers who came to watch as for the improvement of the troops. Far from the chaos of real battle and the unfamiliarity of foreign terrain, the regiments of infantry and cavalry moved in precisely coordinated lines across some 30,000 acres of flat countryside. Silhouetted on the horizon in the early morning mist, this highly trained and well-equipped military force could easily be mistaken for a battalion of toy soldiers.