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Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey

At The Met Fifth Avenue
January 30–May 12, 2019

Exhibition Galleries

In early 1842, just three years after the introduction of photography, the intrepid French artist Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804–1892) embarked with a custom-built camera on a three-year excursion throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Against a backdrop of colonial expansion abroad and cultural preservation at home, he hoped to establish himself as an expert on Islamic architecture in the new field of histoire monumentale, a forerunner of building archaeology. Motivated in part by both French political interests in the Middle East and an artistic fascination with "the Orient," he took an inevitably Eurocentric approach to the study of what he called "Arab" architecture. Nevertheless, Girault's engagement with Islamic art, at a time when studies of this type were rarely pursued, was groundbreaking.

On his journey, Girault also became a trailblazer with photography and its leading-edge technology, the daguerreotype. He mastered the complicated process, which produced unique mirror images on silvered plates, working with an oversize camera and cumbersome equipment. Surmounting harsh conditions in unfamiliar lands, Girault returned to France in 1845 with more than one thousand daguerreotypes in never-before-seen formats—an unparalleled achievement that gave us the world's oldest photographic archive and inestimable works of art.

The organization of this exhibition loosely follows the path of Girault's travels. The majority of the images are the earliest surviving photographs of the places depicted, many of which have since been permanently altered through urban planning, climate change, and conflict. At once personal and universal, his astonishing daguerreotypes reveal Girault to be the originator of a thoroughly modern conception of photography as a means to store, retrieve, reassemble, and display our visual memories.

Girault first announced his intention to study "monuments" of the Mediterranean and their relationship to medieval architecture at a Parisian meeting of the Société française d'archéologie in 1841. He detailed his itinerary and mentioned his use of the daguerreotype the following year. Although somewhat off the beaten track, his journey was not unprecedented and was partially modeled on that of the artist Prosper Marilhat, a fellow member of his Parisian social club, the Cercle des arts. This group, which included painters familiar with the daguerreotype, might also have served as Girault's point of introduction to photography.

Girault departed from Paris with more than one hundred pounds of photographic equipment, plates, and chemicals in February 1842. He then sailed by steamship from Marseille to Italy, arriving in the Papal States, by way of Genoa, in April. He traveled by boat as much as possible throughout his journey to ease the transport of his supplies. His Roman sojourn is partially documented in letters written by the director of the Académie de France in Rome, which report that the industrious artist had made more than three hundred daguerreotypes by the time he left the city in mid-July, photographing "everything that passed."

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Temple of Vesta, Rome (detail), 1842. Daguerreotype, 3 3/4 x 9 1/2 x 5/16 in. (9.5 x 24.1 x 0.8 cm). W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Collection

Selected Artworks

After leaving Italy, Girault made his way to Athens, where he spent the rest of the summer (about six weeks) before traveling on to Egypt in September. He wrote to a colleague at the Société française d'archéologie with enthusiasm about his work in Athens: "I lost less time [than in Rome], and, by my faith, I left very little behind."

Girault's use of plates during this part of his excursion was anything but frugal. He appears to have produced more whole plates in Greece than in any other Mediterranean location. Athens was less familiar to Europeans than Rome, and the French were also fascinated by Greece's recent revolution: Greeks had won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, and the government moved to Athens in 1834.

Girault concentrated on the area around the Acropolis. He described his demanding work there—from calculating exposure times to manipulating noxious chemicals in variable conditions—as a rewarding yet challenging photographic campaign: "Nothing in the world is as marvelous or perfect as all that is contained by the Athenian acropolis! As you might guess, the strongest battle occurred there, and God knows how I exerted myself to take my share of the spoils."

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Capital Detail, Erechtheion, Athens (detail), 1842. Daguerreotype, 4 13/16 x 7 1/2 in. (12.2 x 19.1 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG5-874)

Selected Artworks

Egypt in the early 1840s was still part of the Ottoman Empire, although it had grown increasingly independent under the leadership of the wali (viceroy) Muhammad 'Ali. French presence in Egypt had been on the rise since Napoleon's military campaign (1798–1801) and 'Ali, a renegade commander from the Ottoman army, formed close ties with French military officers and intellectuals as part of his modernizing efforts. Access to the country had improved in 1835, when Alexandria became the port of entry for the first regular Egypt-bound steamer from Europe.

Girault arrived at the port in the autumn of 1842 and, after exploring Alexandria and nearby Rosetta, he settled in Cairo for the rest of the year. He carefully studied the medieval funerary domes and minarets, which had flourished in the Mamluk period (1250–1517), but he also paid special attention to the first mosque built in Egypt, the Mosque of 'Amr ibn al-'As. His photographs of its windows relate to a culturally biased debate among European historians at the time about whether the ogive, or pointed arch, was Islamic or French in origin.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Dome of Khayrbak Mosque, Cairo (detail), 1843. Daguerreotype, 4 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. (12.1 x 19.1 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG5-736)

Selected Artworks

Like many European photographers in the Middle East, Girault often staged his Arab subjects within tableaux that conformed to Western conventions of "the Orient," and he generally identified them only by type (Bedouin, sailor, horse driver). One exception is the individual he called Ayoucha, whose confident gaze counters her performance of various roles assigned to the exotic "oriental" woman. Depicted with a hookah, she modeled for him on at least three other occasions, including once fully veiled.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Ayoucha, Cairo (detail), 1842–43. Daguerreotype, 3 13/16 x 4 13/16 in. (9.7 x 12.2 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG3-725)

Selected Artworks

In 1832 Girault undertook an initial census of Roman-era antiquities in his hometown of Langres, most of which were dispersed along the city's ancient walls. For the young artist, this was an irresistible opportunity. He grew up amid a fervor for collecting artifacts (ushered in by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt) and a nationalist drive to preserve cultural heritage, especially medieval architecture. These dual strands coincided in a new field of study, histoire monumentale, the analysis of the historical built environment—a discipline in which Girault set out to make his mark.

Girault was nourished in this pursuit by his experience in Langres—where he was a founding member of the archaeological society—and his first extended trip abroad, to Italy, North Africa, and Spain (1832–35). It was in Spain, in particular, that Girault became fascinated with Islamic architecture. His field notes and measured drawings served as the basis for several innovative publications and laid the foundation for his groundbreaking Mediterranean journey (1842–45). Girault learned the daguerreotype process before his departure and became the first to use it methodically for a specific scientific goal, making him a pioneer of archaeological photography.

Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours (French, 1807–1873) and Armand-Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau (French, 1819–1896). Excursions Daguerriennes. Vues et monuments les plus remarquables du globe (detail), 1840s. Etchings, aquatints, lithographs, and photogravures after daguerreotypes, 10 13/16 x 15 1/4 x 1 7/16 in. (27.5 x 38.8 x 3.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1947 (47.152)

Selected Artworks

In early 1843, Girault explored the Anatolian peninsula, which makes up most of modern-day Turkey. Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, served as his base, and he relied on a network of French diplomats and scholars to secure his journey. Girault's exact path in Turkey remains uncertain. From letters written at the beginning and end of his stay, we know that he hoped to travel down the coastline and through Antalya, but he was rerouted by the presence of the British archaeologist Charles Fellows, who had been granted privileges for excavations in that region.

Further clues about Girault's itinerary are revealed by the surviving daguerreotypes, which show that he made it as far as Halicarnassus (now Bodrum) and inland to Aphrodisias and Sardis. Based on his dated labels, he also made initial visits to Damascus and Baalbek around this time, where he at first used only small-format plates—see gallery 852—perhaps because his stock was running low. Girault then returned to Cairo in October 1843, presumably with fresh supplies, to finish the work he had started the previous year.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Fountain near Galata, Constantinople (detail), 1843. Daguerreotype, 3 11/16 x 9 1/2 in. (9.4 x 24.1 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG7-747)

Selected Artworks

Girault's journey occurred at a crossroads in the nineteenth-century Euro-American fascination with ancient Egypt. The translation of hieroglyphs and the development of Egyptology in the 1820s marked a turning point for the nascent field of archaeology, which began to shift from a mad scramble for souvenirs to an actual science of the terrain, based primarily on excavation. Although his use of photography predated its adoption by archaeologists, Girault had the foresight to view his daguerreotypes as essential fieldwork. At the same time, he remained partially bound to an older antiquarian tradition, as attested by numerous relics that were removed from their sites and brought back to France.

Girault's documentation of ancient Egyptian monuments, which he described as "gigantic masses with large bases and grand surfaces," occurred primarily during an ascent up the Nile during the first few months of 1844. Although he intended to reach the ancient temple complex at Abu Simbel, he made it only three-quarters of the way there, to Aswan and Philae. At that point, out of concern for the security of his daguerreotypes, he decided to retrace his path back to Alexandria, where he encountered an unexpected delay: exposure to the plague and a month in quarantine.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Ramesseum, Thebes (detail), 1844. Daguerreotype, 7 3/8 x 9 7/16 in. (18.8 x 24 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 2016 Benefit Fund, and Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family, 2016 (2016.604)

Selected Artworks

In the spring of 1844, Girault traveled from Beirut toward Jerusalem, resting at a Carmelite monastery on the way. He reached the city for the Feast of Corpus Christi on May 21, sixty days after Easter, when he originally had hoped to arrive. Yet he was unable to gain entry to all the sites he wished to study, which perhaps explains his documentation of the city gates and the various approaches to the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount.

At the time of Girault's journey, Syria (which included present-day Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories) had recently been returned to Ottoman control after having been ruled by the Egyptian Muhammad 'Ali and his son for almost a decade. Girault claimed that Egypt's retreat, which he partially blamed on France's lack of support, had led to an absent government and endless "revolts, pillaging, and murders." In August, he pressed on and revisited Beirut, Damascus, and Baalbek en route to Aleppo. He was clearly captivated by the as-yet-unexcavated Roman Imperial ruins at Baalbek, where he made more photographs than he had at any other site.

Girault returned to France in early 1845 bearing more than one thousand daguerreotypes. No other photographer of the period embarked on such a long excursion or successfully made a quantity of plates anywhere near this amount.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Great Mosque of Damascus (detail), 1843. Daguerreotype, 3 3/4 x 9 7/16 in. (9.5 x 24 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG7-764)

Selected Artworks

Girault began and ended his journey in France, making his first known daguerreotypes in Paris and his last at a villa he built near his hometown of Langres. The earliest images, from 1841, reveal two abiding features of his work: medieval architecture and plant life. Of the former, he devoted particular attention to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, making it the subject of thirteen daguerreotypes. Two Parisian plant studies here are spectacular examples of the latter.

After his return from the Mediterranean, in 1845, Girault never again used the daguerreotype on the same monumental scale as he did on that journey. He continued to study the medieval heritage of Langres as editor and primary illustrator for the published memoirs of the city's archaeological society. Apart from a few plates related to this research and a study of ruins in the Auvergne, his only other sustained use of the medium was between 1845 and 1850 in Switzerland and along its border with France. By the 1850s, he had turned his attention to his villa, where he pursued his interests in horticulture and continued to experiment with new photographic processes, including collodion on glass and stereoscopy.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Self-Portrait in the Garden, ca. 1860. Albumen silver print, 3 1/8 x 5 7/8 in. (8 x 15 cm). Private Collection

Selected Artworks

Marquee: Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Palm Tree near the Church of Saints Theodore, Athens, 1842. Daguerreotype, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24 x 19 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (EG7-750). Blog: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Self-portrait (detail), 1841–42. Daguerreotype, 4 3/4 x 3 11/16 in. (12 x 9.4 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG3-733)