Musée d'Orsay: The French Daguerreotype in the Musée d'Orsay collections

The French Daguerreotype in the Musée d'Orsay collections

The birth of photography

Philibert PerraudGroup of artists in Rome© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
As counterpoint to the exhibition, The Image Revealed. Early Photographs on Paper, it seemed a good idea to show the Musée d'Orsay's most beautiful French daguerreotypes. In the late 1830s, a common desire to fix images created in the camera obscura resulted in two very different processes. The sharp, glittering clarity of the French invention was answered by the depth and soft shadows offered by the paper calotype developed by Fox Talbot in England. The metal plate offered precise outlines and fine detail. In contrast, the calotype emphasised the overall composition and play of light through the balance of masses and density of shadow.

Auguste BellocNude woman in front of a mirror© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Arago presented Daguerre's invention to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on 7 January 1839. On 25 January 1839, Fox Talbot replied with a presentation of his process at the Royal Society in London. Although Fox Talbot's idea - an image on paper obtained through a negative - was destined to have a brilliant future, the English inventor did not receive the same support from the establishment as Daguerre did in France. Daguerre was offered an annual income so that France could offer "the secret of the invention to the world". Such an initiative was not without political significance: it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution, and the French state was showing the nation's spirit of enterprise.
From 1841, daguerreotype studios opened in France and all over Europe. Although few initially - about a dozen were listed in Paris in 1844, half of them around the Palais Royal - these small back-street studios had increased in number by the end of the decade. The use of smaller images enabled the price of these portraits to be reduced, and so the Daguerreian image became accessible to a wide audience.



Paul-Michel HossardParis, the banks of the Seine© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
But, the response to the daguerreotype from the Académie des Beaux Arts was more hostile. The apparently mechanical creation of images broke with the basic principle of academic teaching based on imitating the old masters. Instead, the members of the Académie des Beaux Arts came down in favour of the process developed by Hippolyte Bayard, similar to Fox Talbot's process: "For art-lovers, Monsieur Bayard's photographic drawings have a quality reminiscent of the old masters".
However, by the end of 1839, Daguerreian plates were being presented in art exhibitions. In Edinburgh that autumn, a daguerreotype of the Tuileries by Daguerre appeared in an exhibition of artistic creations and manufactured objects. Thirty photogenic drawings by Fox Talbot were also shown there. In Paris, in 1844, during the exhibition of Products of Art and Industry, daguerreotypes were shown alongside artists' tools but also with the lithographs. In this way the jury integrated the daguerreotype into the realm of art. But its recognition by the fine art world itself was a slow process. It was not until 1859, the daguerreotype having disappeared, that photographs on paper were shown at the Salon like painting and sculpture.
Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-BlotGirl seated with hoop© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
During The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, the first of the great universal exhibitions organised in London in 1851, Great Britain put photography both in the class of Machinery and in that of fine art. This double classification reflected the median position of the jury whose report stated: "At present, photography occupies an intermediate place between an art and a science, an extremely favourable position for development in both directions (…) the beautiful collections of photographs exhibited today will encourage people to strive to improve this art". Recognised as the first photographic process to become widely available, the daguerreotype was praised for the precision of its portraits and views of architecture. But its decline began in the face of photography on paper and the emergence of negatives on glass. The Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855 was the last occasion when daguerreotypes were exhibited.



Louis Adolphe Humbert de Mollard
 Louis Dodier en prisonnier [Louis Dodier as a prisoner] 
 H. 11.5; W. 15.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of the Braunschweig family in memory of the Texbraun Gallery through the Société des Amis du Musée d'Orsay, 1988
Louis Adolphe Humbert de MolardLouis Dodier as a prisoner© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Since 1979, the Musée d'Orsay has included photographs in its collections. The Kodak donation in 1983, with several hundred French and American daguerreotypes, forms the core of the museum's permanent collection for this medium. Since then, this collection has been enriched with outstanding and exceptional works chosen for their subject matter, historical significance or model.
Thus, Musée d'Orsay collection serves to emphasise the qualities of Daguerre's followers, their desire to create a re-composition of reality through the camera lens. It draws attention to the existence, right from the beginning, of amateurs producing daguerreotypes alongside the most renowned and professional commercial studios. The famous works by Adolphe Humbert de Molard immediately spring to mind. Before going over completely to photography on paper, he produced a remarkable collection of daguerreotypes. His images create a small, inventive theatre, inspired by the popular painting and sketches of the fashionable Tableaux Vivants of the 1840s.

Louis-Auguste BissonHorse Studies© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The Musée d'Orsay daguerreotypes also demonstrate the close links that existed between early photography and painters. In spite of the Academy's disdain, there were many artists who collected or used photographs. Thus, in 1843, the painter Léon Riesener produced a sensitive and moving portrait of his cousin, Eugène Delacroix (not featured in the exhibition for reasons of conservation). It was after a request by his childhood friend, the animal painter Rosa Bonheur, that Louis-Auguste Bisson put all his talent into capturing the actual stance of the animal in several Horse Studies.
Two recently acquired plates by Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg reproduce the drawings of neo-gothic architecture presented at the 1845 Salon by the architect Hippolyte Durand. Because of its fine detail, the daguerreotype brings out the lines of the drawing perfectly, demonstrating photography's ability to reproduce art, and to compete with engraving. Finally, in the early 1850s, when Daguerre's invention was in decline, Baron Gros brought respectability to the daguerreotype. Nicknamed "the Napoleon of the Plate" because of the exceptional quality of his images, he exploited the daguerreotype's clarity and legibility to the maximum, as in his Detail of the Panathenaea Frieze, Parthenon, Athens.
Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros
 Detail of the Panathenaea Frieze, Parthenon, Athens
 H. 11; W. 14.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Mr. Roger Thérond, 1985
Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis GrosDetail of the Panathenaea Frieze, Parthenon, Athens© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The process had completely disappeared in Europe by the early 1860s, a victim of its uniqueness. Although it did not last long, barely twenty years, its precedence ensured it a prominent and lasting role in photography. The announcement of this invention acted like as a catalyst to other inventors, Fox Talbot in particular. It was to achieve the accuracy of the Daguerrian plate that Archer, in the early 1850s, invented his wet collodian process, which combined reproducible negatives with fine detail. From an aesthetic point of view, the daguerreotype, compared with the soft shadows of the calotype, offered a clear and legible image that many photographers still seek today.