France at the Dawn of Photography

One of the many joys found in the new East Wing is the establishment of the Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Galleries. For those of us keenly interested in the history of photography, as well as lovers of the contemporary photography scene, these three galleries provide a perfect venue. Currently on exhibit is France at the Dawn of Photography,” photographs taken contemporaneously with the life of Paul Gauguin, the subject of our current main exhibition. Curator Tom Hinson writes in our Members Magazine, “France at the Dawn of Photography is a snapshot record of France during the Second Empire: the grandeur of its capital city, the beauty of its natural resources, and the vitality of its population.”

Camille Dollard, "Self Portrait" 1997.56

The galleries beckon the viewer with portraits of celebrated French artists. The first image is a large daguerreotype, a self-portrait of artist Camille Dollard. He is, not surprisingly, posed with easel and brush but right next to him is a giant hookah! Oh, Orientalist man of romance and pleasure – what’s not to love? Pierre Petit’s Gustave Doré , looking sexy and cosmopolitan, leans toward the viewer with a bold stare. We see captured images of Paris before the “Haussmannization” of the city’s medieval streets in Charles Marville’s untitled cloud study. Here the distant dome of Les Invalides towers over the city, under a race of clouds that pattern light and gray. A rare snow scene in the forest by Eugène Cuvelier is a study of entwined winter branches creating an almost web-like image. And Behind the Troglodyte Barn – a title so intriguing that this viewer had to read the label before looking deep into the image (“troglodyte” is a medieval term used to describe political activists who found their way around property taxes by living in caves) is a stone arch and structure built into a rock formation. Tools litter the ground but no figures are present. Caves? I need more to this story.

Lastly, this viewer’s favorite photograph and the one that graces November’s Member’s Magazine cover: Courtyard with Painters, by an unidentified photographer. Tom Hinson describes it as, “a captured wealth of detail in an intimate slice of 19th century village life in northern France.”

Courtyard with Painters, Anonymous, 1998.176

And is it ever! Amid Normandy barns and coops, laundresses deal with overflowing baskets of laundry. Two artists are painting – one hugging a little girl with woman reading her letters at his side, and another working under bright umbrellas, his clay pipe clamped in his teeth. His canvas reveals a woman bent over her sewing. And to the right of our scene is the innkeeper with his fancy vest and bushy muttonchops. He looks like a character right out of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels. He faces the photographer, seeming to say: "Soyez le bienvenue! Qu'est-ce que vous voulez a boire?"