Gustave Le Gray, 1854
Alphonse De Launay (French, 1827–1906)
Salted paper print from paper negative; 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. (22.1 x 16.5 cm)
Purchase, Daniel Blau Gift and 2007 Benefit Fund, 2008 (2008.256)
Remarkable for its candor and spontaneity, this portrait defies expectations for the 1850s. A typical sitter, wedged in an armchair and held immobile by a neck brace, confronted the camera with a stiff pose and blank expression. If the subject here—seemingly caught mid-boast—exudes confidence, it is because he had spent more time behind the camera than almost anyone. This is Gustave Le Gray, the central figure in 1850s French photography, famed for his sylvan studies in Fontainebleau Forest and his dramatic and poetic seascapes.
Le Gray was also the teacher of more than fifty photographers, including some now considered part of the pantheon and others, such as Alphonse De Launay, who were nearly lost to history. Here, Le Gray's protégé, working in full sunshine in the studio courtyard, perfectly captured not only the ease of a master enjoying his success but also the cockiness of the man who, six years later, would flee his creditors, abandon his wife and child, sail the Mediterranean with Alexandre Dumas, and end his days in Egypt as tutor to the Pasha's sons. Some credit must also go to Le Gray, whose active participation—perhaps even instructing his pupil—accounts for much of the portrait's success.