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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Mission Héliographique, 1851

In 1851, the Commission des Monuments Historiques, an agency of the French government, selected five photographers to make photographic surveys of the nation’s architectural patrimony. These Missions Héliographiques, as they were called, were intended to aid the Paris-based commission in determining the nature and urgency of the preservation and restoration of work required at historic sites throughout France. The French rail network was still in its infancy and many of the commissioners had never visited the monuments in their care; photography promised a record of such sites that would be produced more quickly and accurately than the architectural drawings on which they had previously relied.

The selected photographers—Édouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, and Auguste Mestral—were all members of the fledgling Société Héliographique, the first photographic society. Each was assigned a travel itinerary and detailed list of monuments. Baldus was sent south and east to photograph the Palace of Fontainebleau, the medieval churches of Lyon and other towns in the Rhône valley, and the Roman monuments of Provence, including the Pont du Gard, the triumphal arch at Orange, the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, and the amphitheater at Arles.

Gustave Le Gray, already recognized as a leading figure on both the technical and artistic fronts of French photography, was sent southwest, to the famed châteaux of the Loire Valley—Blois, Chambord, Amboise, and Chenonceaux, among others—to the small towns and Romanesque churches along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, and through the Dordogne. Le Gray traveled with Mestral and photographed sites on his old friend and protégé’s list, including the fortified town of Carcassonne (not yet “restored” by Viollet-le-Duc), Albi, Perpignan, Le Puy, Clermont-Ferrand, and other sites in south-central and central France. On occasion, the two worked hand-in-hand, for a few photographs are signed by both photographers.

Henri Le Secq was sent north and east to the great Gothic cathedrals of Reims, Laon, Troyes, and Strasbourg, among others. And Hippolyte Bayard, the only one of the five to have worked with glass—rather than paper—negatives (and thus, the only one whose negatives no longer survive), was sent west to towns in Brittany and Normandy, including Caen, Bayeux, and Rouen.

This first act of government patronage of the new art was heralded in the pages of La Lumière, the official organ of the Société Héliographique, with an announcement in the June 29 issue, and the itineraries were published in its pages soon after. The five photographers carried out their missions in the summer and fall of 1851, returning to Paris with portfolios of prints and negatives to show their fellow practitioners. Hopes were high as they handed in 258 photographs to the government, but disappointment followed. Critic Francis Wey lamented that when the photographers completed their missions, the Commission des Monuments Historiques “congratulated them, received their negatives and locked them in a drawer, neither authorizing nor even tolerating their publication. The public is thus deprived of these prints…; the photographers are denied the publicity they hoped for, and our country fails to do justice to the most beautiful work yet produced.”

Today, the bulk of the negatives (excepting Bayard’s) are on deposit at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and numerous prints survive in the archives descended from the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Mission Héliographique prints by Baldus, Bayard, and Le Secq are exceedingly rare, while the somewhat greater presence of prints from Le Gray’s and Mestral’s missions suggests that these photographers may have made two sets of negatives—one for the government, and one for themselves.