Exhibitions/ The Dawn of Photography

The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855

September 23, 2003–January 4, 2004
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition of some 175 works from the dawn of the photographic era is the first major survey of French daguerreotypes—magically detailed, one-of-a-kind images on silver-plated sheets of copper. With extraordinary precision and a boundless ability to represent the world, daguerreotypes boldly announced a revolution that would forever change the history of visual representation. Drawn from major European and North American museums, as well as from private collections and smaller institutions, the works on view include never before seen examples of scientific, ethnographic, exploratory, and historical documentary photography of the 1840s and 1850s, as well as portraits, city views, landscapes, nude studies, and genre scenes that are renowned as key early monuments in the history of photographic art. The exhibition employs specially designed display and lighting techniques to reveal the incomparable detail and sculptural quality that distinguishes this process and which led one of its earliest champions, Jules Janin, to describe the daguerreotype as "divine perfection."

Among the highlights of the exhibition are ten daguerreotypes by the medium's inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (French, 1787–1851), most never before shown in the United States, as well as rare examples of his painting and graphic art. Before achieving fame as a pioneer of photography, Daguerre was best known as a Romantic painter and printmaker, theatrical designer, and proprietor of the Diorama, a popular Parisian spectacle of illusionistic effects. From the mid-1820s he had searched for a way to make pictures using light and chemistry, and in 1829 he formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who had been working on the same problem and who had already achieved primitive but real results. Niépce's famous 1826 heliogravure reproduction of Isaac Briot's Cardinal d'Amboise—an icon of photographic prehistory—is included in the exhibition, along with Niépce's heliogravure plate and Briot's original engraving (Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône). Not until after Niépce's death in 1833, however, did Daguerre perfect the process that he would, perhaps immodestly, dub the "daguerreotype."

Examples of the new art were presented before the French Academy of Sciences on January 7, 1839. These were the first photographs seen in public. Realizing that a patent would be difficult to enforce, Daguerre guarded his secrets. Seven months later, after securing a lifetime pension from the French government in exchange for placing the rights to his process in the public domain, Daguerre finally revealed the steps in creating these seemingly magical images. So rapid and great was the success of the new medium that within months, Théodore Maurisset lampooned a world gone mad in a caricature entitled Daguerreotypomania (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris).

Over the next two decades, before they were replaced entirely by paper photography, millions of daguerreotypes were made by great artists, itinerant artisans, gentlemen amateurs, explorers, astronomers, and archivists on both sides of the Atlantic. Most have disappeared in the course of time, but the works that on view in The Dawn of Photography include superb examples that have survived the intervening century and a half.

Painters, of course, were among the first to understand that Daguerre's invention would change the course of art. Some resisted the new medium, others exploited it as an aid to painting, and still others embraced it as a new means of expression. Self-consciously artistic works are amply represented in the exhibition, including a lyrical landscape near Troyes (George Eastman House, Rochester) by the painter Alexandre Clausel; an exquisite study of two standing nudes by Jacques-Antoine Moulin (some of whose "photographic studies for artists" were deemed obscene by the authorities and earned him a month in jail and a 100-franc fine); and numerous posed tableaux vivants by the gentleman-amateur photographer Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard, including Louis Dodier as a Prisoner (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) in which the foreman of his estate sits on a straw-covered floor, his hands bound in chains and his eyes fixed in a sultry stare.

The most frequent subject of daguerreotypes was the portrait, which fulfilled a deep-seated desire to leave one's visage to loved ones and to posterity. Among the famous artists and writers portrayed in the exhibition were Daguerre himself, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-François Millet, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas. There are also many striking portraits of people whose identities are lost to history but whose characters remain palpable on the daguerreotype plate.

Scientists immediately recognized the potential of this new medium. They harnessed the camera to telescopes and microscopes, seeking to exploit the daguerreotype's capacity for recording with unparalleled exactitude whatever came before the lens. Daguerreotypes by Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault showing the solar spectrum and blood cells of a frog are among the scientific images in the exhibition. Daguerreotypes of skulls and skeletons, casts, and living men and women of various races—made in the 1840s for the museum of natural history in Paris, and still preserved there in the archives of the Musée de l'Homme—are also included.

Equally astonishing to ninteenth-century viewers and fascinating to modern audiences are the images of distant lands that daguerreotypists brought back to Paris. Hippolyte Gaucheraud, writing on the day before Daguerre's photographs were to be revealed to the Académie, wrote presciently, "Travelers, you will soon be able, perhaps, at the cost of some hundreds of francs, to acquire the apparatus invented by M. Daguerre, and you will be able to bring back to France the most beautiful monuments, the most beautiful scenes of the whole world. You will see how far from the truth of the Daguerreotype are your pencils and brushes." Daguerreotypes made by Alphonse-Eugène-Jules Itier in Macao, by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey in Athens, Cairo, and Lebanon, and by Jean-Pierre Alibert in Siberia are among the earliest surviving photographs of these locations. Four extraordinarily beautiful daguerreotypes made on the Acropolis in Athens by Baron Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros in 1850 are among the highlights of the exhibition: the facade of the Propylaea (Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal), a bas-relief from the Parthenon (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), a Nike tying her sandal (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris), and the Erechtheion (Therond Collection, Paris).

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Educational programs have been made possible by The Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust.