Exposition au musée

Félix Thiollier (1842-1914), photographs

From November 13th, 2012 to March 10th, 2013
Félix Thiollier
Usines au bord de l'Ondaine, environs de Firminy, 1895-1910
Collection particulière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt

Félix Thiollier

Félix Thiollier -Paysage de mine, Les Puits Chatelus à Saint-Etienne
Félix Thiollier
Paysage de mine, Les Puits Chatelus à Saint-Etienne, entre 1907 et 1912
Musée d'Orsay
1997, acquisition
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
See the notice of the artwork

Although the talent of photographer Félix Thiollier was still unrecognised twenty years ago, this is mainly because it never occurred to him to seek recognition as such. When, at the age of 35, he decided to live off his private income, this ribbon manufacturer from Saint-Étienne intended to devote himself to art and archaeology.
But feeling restricted in his role as scholar of the local area, Thiollier very quickly started publishing illustrated books. This enterprise, intended to promote both the rich natural environment and cultural heritage of Forez and the work of his artist friends, seemed to take up most of his energy, when he was not otherwise involved with initiatives to protect the local heritage of Saint-Étienne or promote the culture of the area.
It was his activities in these two latter fields that brought him both regional and national recognition, and until recently his reputation was based on these activities alone.

Félix Thiollier -Paysage avec figure, Forez (Loire)
Félix Thiollier
Paysage avec figure, Forez (Loire), entre 1880 et 1882
Musée d'Orsay
Don de M. et Mme Noël Sénéclauze, 2007
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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Today, his resolute determination to remain on the fringes of the photographic circles of his time seems consistent with Thiollier's passion for this medium that he would practise continuously for over half a century.
In addition to showing the rich variety of subjects that inspired him, this exhibition seeks to give the viewer an appreciation of the originality of an approach based wholly on an inexhaustible passion for the picturesque: guiding his photographical machine, this mechanics of looking would lead him from bucolic landcapes and scenes of rural life to sensitive images of an industrial environment largely ignored by the amateur photographers at the turn of the 20th century.
"At an age when I deluded myself into believing that it was possible to combine the picturesque and archaeology..."

Félix Thiollier-Un chasseur
Félix Thiollier
Un chasseur, 1873-1880
Paris, collection Julien-Laferrière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

L'héritage intellectuel et esthétique de Thiollier's intellectual and aesthetic background was typical of that section of the provincial elite in the 19th century who took a keen interest in art and archaeology, and had a great love of books. When, at the end of the 1850s, senior figures encouraged him to take photographs of notable sites and monuments in the Forez area, they already had a project in mind to produce a book about this ancient province which, celebrated by Honoré d'Urfé in L'Astrée (1607-1627), extended right across the department of the Loire into parts of the Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme. They were all steeped in the Romantic tradition of the illus- trated picturesque book, a tradition that would flourish in the second half of the century through many regional publications, like many local responses in this search for the identity of the regions of France.
Illustrated with his early and more recent photographs, Thiollier's Le Forez pittoresque et monumental, published in 1889, is one of the last and most outstanding examples of these.

Perpetuating the rustic ideal

Félix Thiollier -Bergère et troupeau
Félix Thiollier
Bergère et troupeau, entre 1890 et 1910
Musée d'Orsay
2006, acquis par l'Etablissement public du musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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In leaving the town and his activities as an industrialist, Thiollier did not just move closer to the monuments and landscapes he had undertaken to describe. Having acquired two modest country estates – a hunting lodge near the ponds around Précivet, and the former commandery of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem at Verrières – he also reinvented himself as a gentleman farmer in the heart of this arcadian Forez countryside, which, in his view, was under threat.
Heavily influenced by the example of the Barbizon artists whose paintings he collected along with those of his naturalist painter friends, he never tired of capturing the disappearing traces of traditional skills and ways of life with the eye of a painter.
However, it required a certain poetic detachment for photographs to complete this grief. This was usually achieved with the loyal help of his daughter, who appeared in his photographs whenever he wanted to draw attention to the timeless nature of peasant genre scenes.
"Stylistic Landscapes"

Félix Thiollier-Paysage fluvial
Félix Thiollier
Paysage fluvial, 1890-1910
Paris, collection Julien-Laferrière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Although Thiollier had nursed an ambition to become a landscape photographer before he met Ravier in 1873, it is essential to recognise the influence of this painter from Morestel – who had been practising photography since the 1850s – in order to understand why Thiollier moved towards a more committed, if unrevealed, artistic approach to the medium.
After many sessions spent "photographicking" together, their shared vision is expressed in the resulting images of autumnal and winter landscapes, which, devoid of any human presence, offer many light-filled variations on the handful of motifs chosen by the painter: still pools or the banks of streams, solitary outlines of dead trees, undergrowth and country paths, it is a complete repertoire of images of the Dauphiné region that stimulated Thiollier's desire to extol the natural beauty of the Forez.
Although he had to include riverscapes and mountain panoramas to reflect the true variety of this beautiful area, he almost always concentrate on the sky and studies of clouds, ideally enhanced by reflections playing on the still water.

Félix Thiollier -Paysage, Forez (Loire)
Félix Thiollier
Paysage, Forez (Loire), entre 1890 et 1910
Musée d'Orsay
Don manuel de la famille Julien-Laferrière par l'intermédiaire de Bertrand Julien-Laferrière, 2006
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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The range of effects Thiollier developed, although intended in part to transpose the Post-Romantic lyricism which, in Ravier's work, was conveyed through blazing colours and highly skilful brush- work, nonetheless indicates that his images of the countryside were produced with a perfect understanding of his medium.
In pushing for a rapprochement with contemporary artistic photography, the main feature of his style was thus the expres- siveness of the contrasts in values. It is this preference for representing nature in monochrome that partly explains his liking for snowscapes, and also prompted him to undertake almost systematic research into contre-jour, the most appropriate effect for both synthesizing his motifs and revealing the theatrical aspects of the landscape.
Indeed, the all-revealing clarity of broad daylight was far less of an inspiration to Thiollier than the atmosphere of solitude and silence that came with the dusk. As he often noted in his descriptions, it was when the shadows were at their most dramatic that the countryside cast its strongest spell over him.

Territories of intimacy

Félix Thiollier -Paysage, La Sauvetat
Félix Thiollier
Paysage, La Sauvetat, entre 1890 et 1910
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
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Alongside the search for effects that so often excited this landscape photographer, Thiollier's solitary wanderings too were a source of more physical, more earthy themes that reveal a personal shift in the sensitive approach towards the territory.
Although the traditional picturesque approach, which he had adopted until the 1880s, had been fuelled by Romanticism, it was also partly because it implied a way of considering the environment as a spectacle and thus relied heavily on the subjectivity of the first viewer that chose to depict it.

Félix Thiollier-Etang à Mornand, Forez (Loire)
Félix Thiollier
Etang à Mornand, Forez (Loire), 1890-1910
Paris, collection Julien-Laferrière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

It was this look at the landscape that Thiollier now seems to stage, finding that this, far more than the self-portrait, offered him a way to incorporate himself into the landscape that he claimed as his own, and in doing so, into his work. Admittedly, the natural world he shows us is always uninhabited, but this makes it now all the better to fill with the presence of the photographer: the bleaker his selected locations, in relation to the accepted picturesque aesthetic, the more personal these choices turn out to be.
Swept along by the rapid improvements in photographic techniques, the snap- shot practitioner was freed from the pictorial tradition that restricted him to this side of Alberti's “window”: his images are those of someone taking a stroll into the heart of the countryside, or more precisely, pausing at some point, seized by the desire to capture forever the emotion that had prompted him to set up his equipment right in the middle of the pathway, or, as often happened, in a quiet corner of his garden.
The picturesque as developer: the photogeneity of the black city

Félix Thiollier-La cokerie Verpilleux, environs de Saint-Etienne
Félix Thiollier
La cokerie Verpilleux, environs de Saint-Etienne, 1895-1910
Paris, Collection Julien-Laferrière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Forty years after having made the first important choices of his life, learning photography at the same time when he renounced a career as a mine engineer, the former ribbon manufacturer discovered a photographic passion for Saint-Étienne, "a lively and animated city (...) to which the local industries brought a special picturesque character". It was not easy to break away from a code of aesthetic appreciation, which, at a deeper level, was also a way of recognising the world.
The mines and factories in the cradle of the first French industrial revolution were, moreover, particularly appropriate subjects for what came to absorb him more than ever: atmospheric phenomena studies, the architectural and mineral landscape created by the hard work of men, and how the human figure related to this.
It was as if the anonymous figures of workers or coal pickers had come just at the right moment, not only to enhance that "impression (...) of a sort of hidden drama" that best reveals the continuing influence of Ravier in his work, but also to fuel his inexhaustible desire for the picturesque. Besides, how could the poor people of this black town have concealed the exotic charm of their poverty from the lens of this bourgeois citizen who, in spite of himself, was still Thiollier?

Félix Thiollier -Paysage de mine, Saint-Etienne
Félix Thiollier
Paysage de mine, Saint-Etienne, entre 1895 et 1910
Musée d'Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
See the notice of the artwork

Although Thiollier's interest in photography gradually developed until eventually it became much more than the project to promote the natural and archaeo-logical treasures of the area, it was perhaps because this industrialist turned gentleman farmer had realised intuitively that "machine art" (Delacroix) could be the way to resolve, in images, this tension between two worlds that lived side by side – the rural and traditional on one side and the industrial and contemporary on the other – and he belonged to both.
The union of the picturesque and photography was sealed and could not be broken until his project as the editor of Le Forez pittoresque et monumental was completed, and this meant the aesthetic appropriation of the mental and identitarian territory of Forez as he saw it, reconciled with itself in the context of the "industrial image".The choice of medium, precisely because Thiollier officially refused to give it any artistic legitimacy, would not however be made without consequences.

Félix Thiollier-Un coin de jardin, Verrières
Félix Thiollier
Un coin de jardin, Verrières, 1907-1912
Paris, collection particulière
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

By admitting the creative superiority of the eye over the hand, the mechanised tool for reproducing images would gradually enable him to establish an independent vision, with a boldness that would burst into colour: ten years before the photogenic nature of industrial sites would be elevated into a credo of photographic modernism, his last images were extolling these new "worthless" locations that included scrapheaps, wasteland and abando-ned pitheads, such were the ruins of modern Forez, that met his melancholy and clear-sighted gaze.


Maurice Félix Thiollier is born in Saint-Étienne into a wealthy family of ribbon manufacturers who espouse the values of social Catholicism.
The Thiollier family moves to Paris. A French priest, l'abbé Paul Lacuria, is engaged as a tutor for Félix's older brothers.
The Thiollier family returns to Saint-Étienne. Félix Thiollier goes to school at the Collège Saint-Thomas d'Acquin in Oullins near Lyon.
Eligible to take the competitive entrance test for the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne, Félix Thiollier chooses to train at the ribbon factory. He takes up photography, and possibly receives technical advice at this time from Stéphane Geoffray, a photographer from Roanne.
At the age of 25, he sets up his own ribbon factory in Saint-Étienne.
Through the painter Henri Baron, his father's cousin, he is offered a place in the studio of the painter Louis Français, which he turns down for family reasons.
Marries Cécile Testenoire-Lafayette, daughter of Claude-Philippe Testenoire-Lafayette, a lawyer and local scholar from Saint-Étienne, and president of La Diana - the Historical and Archaeo-logical Society of Forez (1870-1879).
Meets the Dauphinois painter Auguste Ravier and soon gives up hope of becoming a professional painter.
Decides to live off his private income. Becomes a member of La Diana.
Publication of the first book to be illustrated with his photographs, Le Poème de l'âme by his friend

the painter Louis Janmot.
First exhibition of his photographs, presented in the great hall belonging to La Diana in Montbrison, on the occasion of the 52nd congress of the Société Française d'Archéologie. Becomes a member of this society, which awards him its silver medal.
Publication of Château de la Bastie d'Urfé et ses seigneurs.
Publication of Forez pittoresque et monumental. Receives a silver medal for his illustrated books at the universal exhibition in Paris.
Becomes a non-resident member of the Committee for Historic and Scientific Works at the Ministry for Public Instruction.
Receives the Légion d'Honneur for his work as a photographer.
Receives the title of honorary curator of the Saint-Étienne Museum of Art and Industry.
Receives another silver medal for his illustrated books at the universal exhibition in Paris.
Publication of L'Histoire de Saint-Etienne by Claude-Philippe Testenoire Lafayette, illustrated with photographs by Félix Thiollier.
Death of Félix Thiollier on 12 May at Saint-Étienne.
Publication of his biography by Sébastien Mulsant.