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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884)

Gustave Le Gray was the central figure in French photography of the 1850s—an artist of the first order, a teacher, and the author of several widely distributed instructional manuals. Born the only child of a haberdasher in 1820 in the outskirts of Paris, Le Gray studied painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche, and made his first daguerreotypes by at least 1847. His real contributions—artistically and technically—however, came in the realm of paper photography, in which he first experimented in 1848. The first of his four treatises, published in 1850, boldly—and correctly—asserted that “the entire future of photography is on paper.” In that volume, Le Gray outlined a variation of William Henry Fox Talbot’s process calling for the paper negatives to be waxed prior to sensitization, thereby yielding a crisper image.

By the time Le Gray was assigned a Mission Héliographique by the French government in 1851, he had already established his reputation with portraits, views of Fontainebleau Forest (2000.13), and Paris scenes (L.1995.2.264), as well as through his writing. Le Gray’s mission took him to the southwest of France, beginning with the châteaux of the Loire Valley, continuing with churches on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (1991.1058), and eventually to the medieval city of Carcassonne (2005.100.34) just prior to “restoration” of its thirteenth-century fortifications by Viollet-le-Duc. He traveled with Auguste Mestral, sometimes photographing sites on Mestral’s Mission list, and at other times working in collaboration with him.

In the 1852 edition of his treatise, Le Gray wrote: “It is my deepest wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole, true place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it. It is up to the men devoted to its advancement to set this idea firmly in their minds.” To that end, he established a studio, gave instruction in photography (fifty of Le Gray’s students are known, including major figures such as Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Émile Pécarrère, Olympe Aguado, Nadar, Adrien Tournachon, and Maxime Du Camp), and provided printing services for negatives by other photographers.

Flush with success and armed with 100,000 francs capital from the marquis de Briges, he established “Gustave Le Gray et Cie” in the fall of 1855 and opened a lavishly furnished portrait studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines (a site that would later become the studio of Nadar and the location of the first Impressionist exhibition). L’Illustration, in April 1856, described the opulence intended to match the tastes and aspirations of Le Gray’s clientele: “From the center of the foyer, whose walls are lined with Cordoba leather … rises a double staircase with spiral balusters, draped with red velvet and fringe, leading to the glassed-in studio and a chemistry laboratory. In the salon, lighted by a large bay window overlooking the boulevard, is a carved oak armoire in the Louis XIII style … Opposite over the mantelpiece, is a Louis-XIV-style mirror … [and] various ptgs arranged on the rich crimson velvet hanging that serves as backdrop … Lastly on a Venetian table of richly carved and gilded wood, in mingled confusion with Flemish plates of embossed copper and Chinese vases, are highly successful test proofs of the eminent personages who have passed before M. Le Gray’s lens … However, the principal merit of the establishment is the incomparable skill of the artist ….”

Despite a steady stream of wealthy clients, the construction and lavish furnishing of his studio ran up huge debts. Perhaps in an attempt to alleviate these financial problems, or perhaps because he enjoyed the artistic challenges of landscape more than the routine of studio portraiture, Le Gray produced some of his most popular and memorable works in 1856, 1857, and 1858—further views of Fontainebleau Forest (1987.1011; now with glass negatives and albumen silver prints), and a series of dramatic and poetic seascapes that brought international acclaim. Despite critical praise and apparent commercial success (one 1857 review cited 50,000 francs in orders for seascapes), Le Gray was, in truth, a better artist than businessman. Nadar wrote that by 1859, Le Gray’s financial backers were “manifesting a degree of agitation and the early signs of fatigue at always paying out and never receiving”; they accused him of drawing more personal income than allowed under contract, paying no interest on his loans, and refusing to open his books for inspection. The portrait business was threatened, too, by the popularity of the new carte-de-visite, small, mass-produced portraits that were far cheaper to buy than Le Gray’s grand productions. Again, Nadar writes that “Le Gray could not resign himself to turn his studio into a factory; he gave up.” On February 1, 1860, Gustave Le Gray et Cie was dissolved.

At the age of forty, Le Gray closed his studio, abandoned his wife and children, and fled the country to escape his creditors. He joined Alexandre Dumas, setting sail from Marseille on May 9, 1860, “to see,” in Dumas’ words, “places famous in history and myth … the Greece of Homer, of Hesiod, of Aeschylus, and of Augustus; the Byzantium of the Latin Empire and the Constantinople of Mahomed; the Syria of Pompey, of Caesar, of Crassus; the Judea of Herod and of Christ; the Palestine of the Crusades; the Egypt of the Pharaohs, of Ptolemy, of Cleopatra, of Mahomed, of Bonaparte … to raise the dust of a few ancient civilizations.” For Le Gray, the voyage provided both an escape and new subjects to photograph. En route to the East, Dumas detoured to aid Garibaldi in his Italian nationalist struggle by returning to Marseille to collect a boatload of arms. Le Gray photographed Garibaldi and the barricaded streets of Palermo. After being abandoned in Malta following a conflict with Dumas two months into the voyage, Le Gray eventually made his way to Lebanon and finally Egypt. There he spent the last twenty years of his life as a photographer and as a drawing tutor to the sons of the pasha. He never returned to France.