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, it was quickly decided that this major invention of the period would have its place in the future Musée d'Orsay.
However, a choice had to be made between creating a permanent collection or merely organizing temporary exhibitions of photographs belonging to other institutions or private collectors. Several factors worked in favor of the first solution. It gave the museum the means to contribute to the enrichment of French heritage, ensure a certain autonomy in the organization of exhibitions in its rooms and, finally, avoid the creation of a "dead" section, since it was deprived of its own collections.
The decision to create a photographic collection at the Musée d'Orsay was therefore taken in 1978. This collection had to be built up from scratch, since, unlike painting and sculpture, there were no collections of this technique that had been assembled over the years by the former Musée du Luxembourg or the Louvre.
The Musée d'Orsay's program gradually took shape. It would no longer be a museum covering the whole of the 19th century, but a more reduced period from 1848 to 1914.
But it was illogical to force the photography collections to comply strictly with these time limits. On the one hand, the invention of this technique was officially proclaimed on August 19, 1839 by the astronomer and physicist Louis-François Arago, during a session at the Academy of Sciences in Paris, and on the other hand, 1918 corresponds, from an aesthetic point of view, to the emergence of modern photography. Indeed, it was after the First World War that the Pictorialist movement petered out and that experimental photography was born in Germany and Eastern Europe, definitively overturning 19th-century patterns.
The Scope of the Collection
The collection was started in 1979 with several aims. First of all, to bear witness to the formal evolution of this art form, strongly influenced by the technical upheavals. Photographic practices changed profoundly during this period: there was little in common between the first daguerreotype cameras, which were cumbersome, complex to handle and required long exposure times, and the small instant cameras that appeared at the very end of the 1880s, and were an immediate commercial success.
Secondly, it was to collect early original prints, printed either by the photographers from their own negatives, or by publishers in the case of a printed book.
Thirdly, the collection was to respect the international character of the Musée d'Orsay and, in particular, to reflect the close links forged between French and English photography from the pioneering period of the medium, and its spread to many countries.
Finally, the use of photography by artists, whether painters, sculptors, decorators, architects or writers, is a key theme in the collection.
The First Purchases
The photographic collection was first built up through purchases. The Musée d'Orsay was allocated special funds for that purpose until 1987 and was periodically helped by the Heritage Fund. In 1989, the contribution of the Commission nationale de la photographie (National Photography Commission) helped maintain an active acquisition policy to be followed for several years.
For its first purchase, the museum chose a particularly remarkable album from the "primitive" period of photography. This is the name given to the period from 1839 to about 1863, considered 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. It includes two sumptuous prints by the leader of the French school, Gustave Le Gray.
The first, Le brick au clair de lune [Brig by Moonlight], is a seascape, one of Le Gray's favorite 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.
Sometimes, collections of early photographs have remained in the photographer's family. Thus, in 1981, a series acquired from Joseph Nègre allowed the entry into French public collections of his great-grandfather Charles Nègre, one of the most important French primitives.
Geneviève Noufflard, goddaughter of the engraver and photographer Henri Rivière, gave the Musée d'Orsay a set of eighty-three snapshots in 1987. These photographs provide us with exceptional views of the streets of Paris and of rural life in Brittany at the end of the 19th century.
In 1993, the museum acquired 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.
Finally, one of the museum's major acquisitions in 1998 was the purchase of a self-portrait by Degas with the daughters of the painter Lerolle, which has remained in the Lerolle family.
Public auctions also gave the Musée d'Orsay an opportunity to buy works on the open market. Among the purchases made in this way are a striking portrait of Baudelaire by Nadar in 1988, a studio collection of the famous portraitist Eugène Disdéri in 1995, a magnificent study of a sky by Le Gray in 1997, and a large pictorial nude by Edward Steichen in 1999.
Purchases such as those made from Roger Thérond in 1985 or the many Nadar prints acquired from Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes in 1991, illustrate the pioneering role played in France, before the creation of the Musée d'Orsay, by these major private collectors.
Loans and Allocations
At the same time, the collections were supplemented by loans and allocations from organizations which usually only owned prints for documentary purposes and which were not intended to preserve them. 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 cataloged 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 decorators.
Three years later, in 1982, the French Photographic Heritage Archives deposited more than two hundred and fifty paper negatives from the Mission Héliographique of 1851. This transfer illustrated the Musée d'Orsay's interest in paper negatives, which until then had been considered merely as a necessary "instrument" for obtaining prints.
The intrinsic artistic value of the negative itself has since been widely acknowledged.
In 1983, the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres deposited an album of very rare positive calotypes by Edouard Baldus. It includes images made for the Mission Héliographique, those of a report on the floods of the Rhone commissioned by Napoleon III in 1856 and a second one on the reunion of the Louvre with the Tuileries palace. This transfer also included about thirty large landscapes by the director of the Manufacture, Victor Regnault.
Also in 1983, the Dosnes Foundation-Thiers Library deposited about twenty views of the Pyrenees, taken in 1853 by Count Joseph Vigier, and a little less than forty views of India dating from 1849-1850 by Baron Alexis de Lagrange. 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. The collection was assembled by Théodule Devéria, one of the department's curators, and includes a large number of prints and negatives taken by himself, 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.
Finally, gifts to the museum were an important source of acquisitions from the very beginning. In 1980, the Musée d'Orsay organized its first exhibition of photographs within the walls of the former Musée du Luxembourg. It was devoted to Charles Nègre and resulted in a donation from Mr. 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.
The following year, the publication Camera Work by Alfred Stieglitz given by Minda de Gunzburg was a considerable 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, and in 1986, some three thousand photographs illustrating the life of the upper middle class were donated by the founding family of the Menier chocolate factory.
The preparation of the celebrations of the centenary of the death of Victor Hugo, who died 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 direction of the poet, by Auguste Vacquerie and the sons of Victor Hugo entered the collections in 1984.
Hundreds of prints and negatives taken by Pierre Bonnard between 1885 and 1912 were donated by the children of Charles Terrasse in 1987. More than five hundred autochromes by Etienne Clémentel and more than eight hundred and fifty glass positives that belonged to him were donated by Mmes Barrelet-Clémentel and Arizzoli-Clémentel in 1990.
We should also mention a new gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jammes in 1991 of 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.
More than a thousand negatives and about fifty autochromes by Paul Burty-Haviland joined the collections in 1993 and 1995 thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Nicole Maritch-Haviland and Mr. Jack Haviland. Finally, in 2003, an exceptional donation from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation brought twenty-two original prints by Alfred Stieglitz to the Musée d'Orsay. This collection, which focuses mainly on the "pure" photography of the artist's modern period, is a welcome addition to the gift from Minda de Gunzburg, which represents the photographer's Pictorialist period.
Acquisition Policy Today
When the Musée d'Orsay opened in December 1986, the collection included some twelve thousand photographs. It now has over forty-five thousand.
The aim is to consider each acquisition with a view to ensuring that it complements the French public collections, and that it is consistent with the themes developed over the last forty years, and which have helped to shape the face of the collection in the French institutional landscape. It is this identity that needs to be reinforced and diversified.
In recent years, efforts have been made in the fields of French photography from the 1840s and 1850s, as well as international Pictorialism from the turn of the last century. More recently defined priorities have already borne fruit, establishing the collection as an international reference in new areas: the beginnings of color photography, the production of French, British, and American women photographers, among others, but also the amateur uses of photography - or without claimed artistic ambition - particularly at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century during the advent of the snapshot and the democratization of this tool.