French Photographic Pioneer, Physicist, Scenic Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Louis Daguerre
The influence of Daguerre's intervention on the shaping of the industrialized world is hard to overestimate. Having carved out a successful career as a theatrical scenery painter, the Frenchman turned to science and optics in search of a way of improving the production of his profitable entertainments. His move into the nascent field of photography led him ultimately to the development of his daguerreotype camera; the first form of mechanical reproduction to produce a finely detailed and permanent photographic record. The daguerreotype, which quickly spread throughout the world, proved to be the catalyst that has altered the way we have come to view and represent our world, including the radically altered perception of art, and what its function was; or what it should, or could, become.
- Opinions differ as to when one can date the start of modernism, but there can be no doubt that Daguerre's "technological miracle" sent a shockwave through the sciences and the visual arts. Indeed, the daguerreotype "machine", which recorded the world with much more fidelity than the human eye and hand ever could marked a decisive turning point in the history of art.
- On the one hand, the daguerreotype had delivered a profound blow to the world of art by rendering realist painting all-but passé. But the daguerreotype had also liberated the artists in the sense that he or she no longer carried any responsibility for representing his or her world literally. For better or worse, Daguerre had effectively announced a brand new era in art history; an era marked by unprecedented experimentation and innovation.
- As camera technology improved, equipment became more mobile, and art photography more spontaneous and playful. The careful staging that was the daguerreotype's legacy lived on however in the "higher", or "spiritual", developments in the photographic arts. The fixed large format image came to define Straight Photography which created high contrast, sometimes semi-abstract, images that were reliant on size and context (usually a gallery wall) to realize their full aesthetic potential.
- The privilege hitherto of the bourgeois classes, the daguerreotype allowed for the democratization of expensive and time consuming painted portraiture. For the first time, the working classes could afford to create histories and mementoes of their own lives (and sometimes deaths) through photographic images that would adorn their walls and mantlepieces.
- Daguerre was quick to signal the huge potential for the medium of photography. With a view towards the sciences, he created images of dead insects; while in respect of the arts, he created images that captured light and shadows in expressive ways. He also experimented with microscopic and telescopic versions of the daguerreotype enabling him to photograph subjects ranging in scale from spiders to the moon.
Biography of Louis Daguerre
Daguerre believed that the "most useful and extraordinary [...] instruments of science" were those, like his daguerreotype, that were valued equally for the "influence which they exert upon the arts".
Important Art by Louis Daguerre
Daguerre's name is inextricably linked to the invention of practical photography but he had already made a name for himself with his extravagant diorama entertainments which proved hugely popular amongst Parisians (and Londoners) during the 1820s. His purpose-built, revolving, theater featured finely detailed architectural ruins and panoramic tableaus painted (by Daguerre and his colleague Charles Marie Boulton) onto 70 by 45 ft transparent linen sheets which would then be "brought to life" through lighting and sound effects (and sometimes even performers and stage props). The Ruins of the Holyrood Chapel proved to be one of his most popular diorama presentations.
In order to perfect his dioramas, Daguerre would prepare oil sketches through which he tested various color effects. Occasionally, he displayed these as easel paintings as was the case here. The Ruins of the Holyrood Chapel was in fact exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824 with the historian and founder President of the Third Republic, Adolphe Thiers, declaring that "the appreciators of the beautiful, by approaching the table of Mr. Daguerre, had the [...] advantage of enjoying its execution, so firm, so broad and so dexterous in details", and the director of the Louvre, Louis Nicolas Philippe Auguste de Forbin, hailing Daguerre as "one of the most remarkable [painters] of the time".
It is not known whether Daguerre visited the historical Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, though several early 19th century artists and writers had been drawn to the rich history of Scotland due largely to the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's novels. In fact, Daguerre painted two other Scottish views - Esquisse de l'Intérieur de l'Abbaye de Roslyn (1824) and Personnages Visitant une Ruine Médiévale (1826). What becomes evident through studies of interior ruins is that Daguerre was able to finesse the various ways lighting worked through his unique diorama tableaus. Indeed, the oil painting captures all the illusionism of gothic drama within the decorative detail of the architectural ruin.
The Artist's Studio is widely considered the first successful daguerreotype. Natural light emanates from a window, casting its dramatic shadow across the artist's plaster-casts and other effects. There is a discernible romanticism in Daguerre's photograph in the way that it intones a direct link between photography and a traditional still life painting. Indeed, while it is generally agreed that Daguerre lay the foundations for the revolution in photographic reproduction, the image points in fact to something more modest in Daguerre's ambitions.
Daguerre, who was by now well known for his diorama exhibitions, was not without his distractors, many of whom harboured worries about the seemingly incessant march of industrialization. Concerns about the use of optical instruments and their threat to the traditions of history and genre painting sat within these wider anxieties. But this apprehension distracted from the fact that Daguerre was primarily interested in producing unique (rather than multiple) images, albeit that they would be rendered scientifically, on a silver-lined copper plate, rather than on linen or canvas. His photographic experiments were in fact extensions of his diorama paintings in the way that Daguerre was pushing for ways of better capturing subtleties and variations in light. It was only in the final printing process that these nuances in lighting became diffuse and Daguerre's still lifes provided the template, rather, for a role for photography that would allow for the dissemination (and subsequent analysis) of museum objects and artefacts.
Given the length of exposer times (typically 10 to 15 minutes), and the bulky and nearly immobile equipment, daguerreotypes were usually confined to the studio: still lifes, portraits or, in this iconic example, a street scene captured from the window of Daguerre's own studio. In the beginning, the world had to stand still in order to be photographed and Daguerre produced many still lifes and images of roof tops. One can see that there is no evidence of traffic on the busy boulevard while the only trace of human life is seen in the lower left of the frame where a shoe-shiner and his customer have remained immobile long enough to leave the only permanent human mark on the copper plate.
Daguerre made various views of the Boulevard du Temple and these were presented to several courts of Europe as evidence of his discovery. The scientific community was astounded at the detail in the images. On seeing the first results of the daguerreotype in 1839, La Gazette du France declared that photography was such a significant invention that it "upsets all scientific theories on light and optics, and it will revolutionize the art of drawing"; Daguerre, it continued, had for the first time in history created a "fixed and everlasting impress that could be taken away from the presence of the object". The artist Paul Delaroche seemed to be in full agreement with the Gazette's assessment when he lamented, "from this day, painting is dead".
Influences and Connections
- I. E. M. Degotti
- Pierre Prévost
- Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce
- François Arago
- Samuel Morse
- Antoine Claudet
- French Panoramic Painting
Useful Resources on Louis Daguerre
- Louis Daguerre and the Story of the Daguerreotype (Uncharted, Unexplored, and Unexplained: Scientific Advancements of the 19th Century)By John Bankston
- American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in AmericaBy Holger Cahill
- The Ruins of the Holyrood ChapelBy Joseph Sharples / VADS / May 13, 1994
- Daguerre, visual experimenterOur PickBy Stephen Pinson / Etudes photographiques magazine / July 13, 2003
- American Folk Art, Cooperstown Graduate ProgramBy Laura Laubenthal / American Folk Art Museum / January 28, 2012
- Daguerre (1767-1851) and the Invention of PhotographyBy Malcolm Daniel / The Metropolitan Museum of Art / August 22, 2012
- Photo History Friday: The Victorian PioneersOur PickBy Jenny Lang / Hungry Ghost Collective / July 12, 2013
- 8 Important Daguerreotype PhotosBy Erin McCarthy / Mental Floss / August 19, 2013
- Bringing Daguerreotype Photography Back in StyleBy Chelsea Matiash / Time / October 14, 2016
- Seeing is Believing: Early War PhotographyOur PickBy Megan O'Hearn / Artstor / November 11, 2016
- Death and the Daguerreotype: The Strange and Unsettling World of Victorian PhotographyBy Anna Marks / VICE / December 31, 2016
- Photography & the 1851 Great ExhibitionOur PickBy Larry I Schaaf / The Talbot Catalogue / October 13, 2017
- The Age of Gold and DaguerreotypesOur PickBy Sarah Moroz / New York Times / January 23, 2018
- The American Daguerre - John PlumbeOur PickBy Mike Smith / Fstoppers / April 27, 2018
- American Traditions: A Taste for Folk ArtSmithsonian / June 11, 2020