Musée d'Orsay: Photography


Photography Enters the Museum

In the 1970s, when it was decided to convert the Orsay railway station into a museum for the 19th century, no fine arts museum in France had a photography section. Yet space was allocated in the future Musée d'Orsay for what was one of the major inventions of the period.
However, a choice had to be made between creating a permanent collection or merely organising temporary exhibitions of photographs belonging to other institutions or private collectors. Several factors worked in favour of the first solution. It gave the museum a way of enriching France's heritage, guaranteed a measure of independence in the organisation of exhibitions in its galleries and avoided the pitfall of a "dead" section without its own collection.
The decision to set up a photographic section in the Musée d'Orsay was taken in 1978. The collection had to be built up from scratch because, unlike painting and sculpture, photography did not benefit from collections already assembled by the former Musée du Luxembourg or the Louvre.

Léon Riesener
 Full face portrait of Eugène Delacroix, head and shoulders
 H. 6; W. 4.3 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Léon RiesenerEugène Delacroix© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda
The programme for the Musée d'Orsay was gradually clarified. It was no longer to span the entire 19th century but covered a shorter period from 1848 to 1914. But it was illogical to force the photography collection to comply strictly with these time limits. On the one hand, the invention of the technique was officially announced on 19 August 1839 by the astronomer and physicist Louis Francois Arago, at a session of the Academy of Science in Paris, and, on the other hand, in aesthetic terms 1918 corresponds to the start of modern photography. Indeed, after the First World War, the Pictorialist movement petered out and experimental photography in Germany definitively dislocated 19th-century schemas.

The Scope of the Collection

William Henry Fox Talbot
 Trees reflected in the water, Lacock Abbey
 Circa 1843
 Salted paper print from a paper negative, talbotype
 H. 16.4; W. 19.1 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
William Henry Fox TalbotTrees reflected in the water, Lacock Abbey© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The collection was started in 1979 with several aims. Firstly, it was to record the formal development of photography, an art strongly influenced by technical upheavals. Photographic practices underwent profound changes over the period: the first daguerreotype cameras, which were bulky, difficult to handle and required long poses, had little in common with the small instantaneous cameras of the late 1880s which immediately enjoyed a huge commercial success.
Secondly, it was to collect early original prints, printed either by the photographers from their own negatives, or by the publishers in the case of an edition. Thirdly, the collection was to respect the international character of the Musée d'Orsay and give an account of the links built up between French and English photography in the pioneering period and its spread to other countries.


Gustave Le Gray
 Auguste Mestral
 Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Interior of a Cloister, St Peter's Church
 Salted paper print from a dry waxed negative
 H. 23.2; W. 34.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Gustave Le Gray, Auguste MestralMoissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Interior of a Cloister, St Peter's Church© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The first photographs in the collection were purchased by the museum. The Musée d'Orsay was allocated special funds for that purpose until 1987 and is periodically assisted by the Heritage fund. Since 1989, the contribution of the National Photography Commission has helped maintain an active acquisitions policy.

Its first purchase was a particularly remarkable album from the "primitive" period. This is the term given to the period from 1839 to 1863, considered to be the golden age of French and English photography. This album, put together by Louis Alphonse de Brébisson, himself a photographer, contained about forty works by his contemporaries. In particular there are two remarkable prints by the leader of the French school, Gustave Le Gray. The first, Brig by Moonlight, is a seascape, one of Le Gray's favourite subjects; the second, a view of the cloister of Moissac, was taken from the Mission Héliographique, the first public, collective photographic commission in the history of photography, entrusted to Edouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Henri Le Secq, Auguste Mestral and Gustave Le Gray in 1851.

Edgar DegasSelf-portrait with Yvonne and Christine Lerolle© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Sometimes, sets of early photographs have remained in the photographer's family. In 1981, a series bought from Joseph Nègre brought the work of his great-grandfather Charles Nègre, one of the most important French primitives, into French public collections.
Geneviève Noufflard, the goddaughter of the engraver and photographer Henri Rivière, sold the museum a set of eighty-three snapshots in 1987. These prints give us outstanding views of Paris streets or rural life in Brittany in the late 19th century. In 1993, the museum bought a collection of one hundred and seventy-nine prints from the family of Paul Burty-Haviland. The son of a great American porcelain maker in Limoges, Burty-Haviland was an American Pictorialist photographer and Stieglitz's patron. Another of the museum's major acquisitions was the purchase in 1998 of a self-portrait by Degas with the daughters of the painter Lerolle, which had remained in the Lerolle family.

Public auctions also gave the Musée d'Orsay an opportunity to buy works on the open market. By this means it acquired a striking portrait of Baudelaire by Nadar in 1988, a studio collection from the famous portraitist Eugène Disdéri in 1995, a magnificent skyscape by Le Gray in 1997 and a large Pictorialist nude by Edward Steichen in 1999.

Purchases such as those made from Roger Thérond in 1985 or the many prints by Nadar bought from Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes in 1991 illustrate the pioneering role played by these great private collectors in France, before the foundation of the Musée d'Orsay.

Loans and Allocations

At the same time, the collections were completed by allocations and loans from organisations which frequently held prints for documentary purposes only and were not equipped to ensure their preservation. The photographs that joined the collections of the Musée d'Orsay in this way underwent a change of status because they had often never been catalogued by artist.

In 1979, the Mobilier National made its first transfer of photographs to the Musée d'Orsay; a set of fifty flower studies by Charles Aubry, used as models by the decorators.
Three years later, in 1982, the photographic archives of the Heritage Department sent the museum over two hundred and fifty paper negatives from the 1951 Mission Héliographique. This transfer illustrated the Musée d'Orsay's interest in paper negatives, previously regarded merely as a necessary "instrument" for obtaining prints.

Edouard Baldus
 Inondations du Rhône en 1856, à Avignon [The Rhône in Flood in 1856, Avignon]
 Salted paper print from a paper negative 
 H. 30.5; W. 44 cm 
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of the Société des Amis du Musée  d'Orsay, 1988
Edouard BaldusThe Rhône in Flood in 1856, Avignon© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The intrinsic artistic value of the negative itself has since been largely acknowledged.
In 1983, the Sèvres porcelain factory lent an album of very rare positive calotypes by Edward Baldus. It includes images made for the Mission Héliographique, a photo reportage on the flooding of the Rhone commissioned by Napoleon III in 1856 and another on the joining of the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace. This transfer also included about thirty large landscapes by the factory's director Victor Regnault.
Still in 1983, about twenty views of the Pyrenees taken by Count Joseph Vigier in 1853, and nearly forty views of India by Baron Alexis de Lagrange dating from 1849-1850 were loaned by the Dosnes foundation at the Thiers library.
In 1986, in exchange for modern prints made from the negatives, the Musée d'Orsay was allocated a collection from the Egyptian Antiquities Department of the Louvre. Built up by Théodule Devéria, a curator in the department, it numbers many prints and negatives taken by Devéria himself, or by John B. Greene and Félix Teynard.
Also in 1986, the Musée d'Orsay and the future Bibliothèque Nationale de France jointly acquired a set of albums by Eugène Atget, Documents pour l'histoire du vieux Paris... one of the albums containing 54 views of the Saint-Séverin district was then allocated to the museum.


Louis Adolphe Humbert de Mollard 
 Paysan et paysanne écossant des haricots [Peasant man and woman podding beans]
 Salted paper print 
 H. 22; W. 18.2 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Mr and Mrs d'Iray, 1980
Louis Adolphe Humbert de Mollard Peasant man and woman podding beans© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Gifts made to the museum very quickly represented a major source of acquisitions. In 1980, the Musée d'Orsay organised its first exhibition of photographs, in the former Musée du Luxembourg. It was dedicated to Charles Nègre and led to a donation by Joseph Nègre. Among other generous gestures which have brought the Museum some remarkable works, too numerous to be listed here, we could mention the prints and negatives of Adolphe Humbert de Molard given by his descendant Raoul Le Prevost d'Iray in 1980. Minda de Gunzburg's gift the following year of Alfred Stieglitz's publication Camera Work was a major contribution. The gravures published in the avant-garde review are regarded as originals, so the gift brought the museum a complete panorama of Pictorialism both in America and in Europe.
In 1983, several thousand pieces were donated by the Kodak Pathé foundation in Vincennes then, in 1986, about three thousand photographs illustrating the life of the upper middle-class were given to the museum by the family which founded the Menier chocolate factory. The preparations for the centenary of Victor Hugo's death in 1885 gave rise to donations from Mrs André Gaveau, Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes and the family of Jean Hugo. Photographs taken under the poet's guidance by Auguste Vacquerie and Victor Hugo's sons entered the collections in 1984.
Pierre Bonnard
 Marthe au tub, vers 1908 [Marthe in the Bathtub, circa 1908]
 Between 1908 and 1910
 Flexible gelatine silver-bromide film
 H. 7.8; W. 5.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation by the Terrasse estate with life interest reserved, 1992
Pierre BonnardMarthe in the Bathtub, circa 1908© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Hundreds of prints and negatives taken by Pierre Bonnard between 1885 and 1912 were donated by the children of Charles Terrasse in 1987. Over five hundred autochromes by Etienne Clémentel and more than eight hundred and fifty glass positives which had belonged to him were given to the museum by Mrs Barrelet-Clémentel and Mrs Arizzoli-Clémentel in 1990. A further gift from Mr and Mrs Jammes in 1991 brought the museum more than ten photographs of the mime artist Deburau dressed as Pierrot by Félix Nadar and Adrien Tournachon. In 1994, the children of Mrs Halévy-Joxe donated portraits of Louise and Daniel Halévy by Degas.
Over a thousand negatives and about fifty autochromes by Paul Burty-Haviland joined the collection in 1993 and 1995 thanks to the generosity of Mrs Nicole Maritch-Haviland and Mr Jack Haviland. Lastly, in 2003, an outstanding donation by the Georgia O'Keeffe foundation brought the museum twenty-two original prints by Alfred Stieglitz. Putting the accent on "pure" photography from the artist's modern period, the set was a precious complement to Minda de Gunzburg's gift which represents the photographer's Pictorialist period.

A Vigorous Collection

Henri Le SecqForest Brook (Montmirail)© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
When the Musée d'Orsay was opened in December 1986, the collection included some twelve thousand photographs. It now has over forty-five thousand. The most recent acquisitions include the purchase, in 2003, of two photographs by the painter Ferdinand Knopff, showing his sister Marguerite, and the loan of eighty-six photographs of Spain by Jean Laurent by the Sculpture Department of the Louvre in 2004. Purchases in 2005 include a Portrait of Man Ray by Stieglitz, Forest Stream by Le Secq, an anonymous set of twelve strange collages entitled Obsession, three daguerreotypes by Aldolphe Humbert de Molard and six prints by Roger Fenton. In 2006, the museum accepted the gift of a set of Maurice Denis' photographs from his granddaughter, Claire Denis, and in the same year purchased over five hundred photographs which once belonged to the painter Edmond Lebel...

The importance and diversity of these examples confirm that the Musée d'Orsay's photographic collection is as vigorous as it was at the museum's inception. After contributing to the recognition of an art which had languished in the shadows for many decades, it is appropriate for a multidisciplinary museum such as Orsay to continue building up its collection in order to gain a fuller understanding of photography, probe its characteristics and history and measure its contribution to other disciplines.

Recent acquisitions

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