Only in the late 1840s and early 1850s, after a decade of daguerreotypy, did ambitious artists, trained in the aesthetics of painting and the requisite chemical manipulations, take up the still experimental processes of paper print photography. Best known are those professional photographers in Paris—Gustave Le Gray, Édouard Baldus, and others—who played major roles in the photographic salons and societies of the capital and who shaped grand orchestral compositions from the trees of Fontainebleau Forest, Gothic architecture, or modern boulevards, bridges, and railroads. Without the preoccupations of the professional photographer—the business of running a portrait studio, the politics of securing government commissions, the economics of publishing one’s work—a second constellation of inspired photographers developed in Sèvres, along the Seine on the outskirts of Paris. Louis Robert and Victor Regnault were its central figures. Equally as accomplished as their Parisian colleagues, the Sèvres photographers turned their cameras toward more intimate subjects—the gardens, courtyards, and narrow roads of Sèvres, friends and family at home and in the factory’s ateliers, views of the banks of the Seine, and tabletop still lifes—and rendered them with deliberate informality and a painterly facture.
Louis Robert (1810–1882) grew up at the royal porcelain factory at Sèvres; his father was the head of the glass-painting atelier, a position that Louis himself assumed at the age of twenty-two, following his father’s death. In 1847, he was named head of the painting workshop, and in 1871 Director of the Manufacture. Inclined by training and temperament toward endeavors that brought together the fields of painting and chemistry, Robert was among the earliest French artists to take up paper photography, around 1850. After Regnault, an important chemist and pioneering photographer, became director of the porcelain factory in 1852, Robert’s photographic activity intensified, no doubt because the two men experimented together and encouraged each other’s work.
In addition to the talented designers, artisans, and chemists who produced elaborate creations at the factory, the village of Sèvres attracted the naturalist painters Troyon, Daubigny, and Corot, who came to sketch picturesque scenes along the banks of the Seine and in the nearby forest. Robert knew them and, no doubt, drew inspiration from their paintings and drawings. His oeuvre consists of portraits of his family (1995.3) and friends (1991.1044), still lifes of the products of the porcelain factory (1987.1052), a series of landscapes made in the nearby gardens of Versailles and Saint-Cloud, a commissioned series of architectural studies of Brittany, and a group of views made at Romesnil in Normandy (1996.363.2; 2005.100.38).