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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Daguerreian Age in France: 1839–55

The French government placed Daguerre’s process in the public domain, and within months it had spread across the globe like wildfire. So intense was the craze that by December of 1839 a Parisian caricaturist, Théodore Maurisset, would lampoon a world overrun by daguerreotypists and a clamoring public—a picture that was not far from the truth. Millions who would never have dreamed of commissioning a painted portrait lined up to have their faces recorded for friends or family, and for posterity.

In fact, when Daguerre first demonstrated his process, exposure times were so long that even he confessed it was not yet practical for portraiture. Within months, however, others had tinkered with the chemistry and procedures to reduce exposure times from minutes to seconds. Devices were also invented to help sitters remain motionless, though often with a stiff posture and pained expression. Ultimately portraiture came to account for the vast majority of daguerreotypes, fulfilling a deep-seated desire to capture and preserve the face of a beloved husband or wife, a soldier son at war, an infant on her deathbed, or even a favorite family dog. To judge by the economic record—more than five-and-a-half tons of silver were used by Parisian platemakers in one year—millions of daguerreotypes were produced, and most of them were portraits.

In major cities, skilled daguerreotypists set up luxuriously appointed portrait studios where even the middle class could feel like ladies and gentlemen as they presented themselves to the camera and to posterity. Although a sensitive operator and a spirited sitter occasionally produced brilliant results, most portraits ended up looking rather like the rest—formulaic in pose and uninspired in attitude. It was little wonder, given the sheer quantity of daguerreotypes being produced. But this made little difference to most clients, for accuracy was more important to them than art. Smaller provincial towns were served by itinerant photographers—often more tradesman than artist—who stayed for a few days to photograph any interested party able to afford the modest cost. There were also gentlemen amateurs, usually men of leisure and learning, who outfitted themselves with the necessary equipment to photograph their families and friends, leaving behind a more individual and intimate set of pictures than many of their professional counterparts.

While portraiture was by far the most common subject of daguerreotypes, artists and scientists, explorers and archaeologists all took up the camera and produced pictures unlike any that had been made before. 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. 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.

Equally astonishing to nineteenth-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, noted 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.” His prediction was correct. By year’s end, travelers had set out for the French provinces and foreign territory armed with the cumbersome equipment and a supply of plates, struggling to adjust Daguerre’s instructions to accommodate the intensity of the Mediterranean sun, the extreme heat of the Egyptian desert, or the unreliable provisions of a foreign port. The plates they brought back include some of our most treasured first glimpses of far-off regions of the globe.

In the early 1850s, photography on paper began to supersede the daguerreotype. Although photographs on paper lacked the daguerreotype’s miraculous clarity, they had numerous advantages: multiple prints could be made from a single negative; larger images could be produced more easily; and paper photographs could be pasted in albums or used to illustrate books. The taste for daguerreotypes lasted a bit longer in America, but in France the medium’s heyday had passed by the mid-1850s, and daguerreotypes had all but disappeared by 1860. Nevertheless, many millions of them were produced in little more than a decade and a half.