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White Gray Black

Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820–1884)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French photographer, painter and teacher. He studied painting with Paul Delaroche until 1843. A study trip to Switzerland and Italy, financed by his parents, followed, but it was cut short by an untimely marriage in 1844, his sudden return to his family’s home and the subsequent birth of two children in 1845 and 1846. Skilled in painting as an experimenter with pigments, he was attracted to the experimental side of the new paper negative processes available in France after 1847 and plunged into photography, probably to finance the burdens of the family life newly thrust upon him. His treatise, Traité pratique de photographie sur papier et sur verre (1850), outlined his own variant of the dry waxed paper negative process using thinner paper, as well as a recipe for collodion on glass negatives rivalling that of the English inventor Frederick Scott Archer. A further modification to the waxed paper nagative process was announced in 1851. Le Gray quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant and intuitive photography teacher and gave lessons from a factory building at the Barrière de Clichy in north-west Paris to many painters, including other students of Delaroche such as Henri Le Secq and Charles Nègre, and to countless amateurs who professed later that they could not remember anything Le Gray had taught them, except that they learnt to love photography.

Le Gray’s teaching reinforced his view that to photograph was to practise an art with a set of rules that did not necessarily derive from painting. Nonetheless, in 1849 he was among the first photographers to follow the painters to the Forest of Fontainebleau and made mysteriously beautiful compositions of the ‘black networks’ of the trees (e.g. In the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1851, print after 1855; London, V&A) of the kind Victor Hugo characterized in his poetry. Le Gray’s peregrinations in Fontainebleau were also part of the domestication of the forest initiated by its great connoisseurs, who since 1840 had been writing detailed guidebooks to the place as if it were a museum. Le Gray made at least one album of his trees but mainly sold the prints to artists; however, his public was probably envisaged as being the same as those who read the guidebooks.

Le Gray was a founder of the Société Héliographique in 1851 and of the Société Française de Photographie, and he served on many committees concerned to make photographs aesthetically pleasing as well as cheap and available. By 1851 he was an accomplished architectural photographer, and he took part in the Missions Héliographiques set up by the Commission des Monuments Historiques to record ancient monuments in France. Le Gray collaborated with his student O. Mestral (active 1850s), and both men’s names appear on prints depicting the fortifications at Carcassonne, for example. Le Gray’s work for the Missions has a highly romantic character. Burying his details in deepest shadow he was able to produce moonlight effects on the dreaming, silent cloister at Moissac (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), for example, while photographing in broad daylight.

After the death of his father in 1855 and with the help of two financial backers, Le Gray established a commercial studio with sumptuously decorated rooms on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, where he concentrated on portraiture to guarantee an income. His depictions of living persons seem rather reticent regarding the force of human character, especially when compared with the work of his contemporary and rival Nadar. Le Gray was really more at home in open spaces and at this time began photographing seascapes from the Normandy coast (e.g. Brig upon the Water, 1856; New York, Met.) and along the Mediterranean near Sète (e.g. Broken Wave, Port de Sète, 1856; London, V&A). Such works caused an immediate sensation and were widely exhibited and collected, initially by British collectors and amateurs. Le Gray was innovative in producing stunning effects of light and split-second effects of waves crashing on the shore with dynamic clouds overhead. He used the more sensitive collodion on glass process for this, to which he added his skills as a combination printer (using two different negatives for a single seascape in order to control sky and sea separately, a fact verified by the discovery of four different seascapes with exactly the same clouds). His work was an inspiration to the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet, whose work along the Normandy coast in the 1860s (e.g. Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, 1866; New York, Met.) reflects an awareness of certain Le Gray effects.

In 1857 Le Gray was commissioned by Napoleon III to record the principal scenes of the inauguration of a new instructional military site, the Camp de Châlons, and to produce a series of albums that the Emperor could present to his generals. Le Gray also used collodion on glass for this task, and, although he was unable to convey the fierce action of the manoeuvres celebrating the opening of the camp, he produced evocative symbols of military life in silent tableaux, for example Souvenir of the Camp de Châlons, Addressed to General Decaën (New York, MOMA). He used a similar approach back in Paris as he recorded along the Seine large views of urban architecture, which map out the city into topographies of bridges, domes and spires.

From the beginning Le Gray’s career involved a terrible struggle to survive financially without compromising his artistic standards. Despite his renown as a teacher, experimenter and promoter of French photography’s earliest aesthetic ideals, he was a feckless self-promoter who seems to have suffered gravely from little or no business acumen. In February 1860 he dissolved Le Gray and Company. By May he had boarded a yacht, the Emma, belonging to the writer Alexandre Dumas. With Dumas and several young passengers Le Gray headed for Egypt, abandoning his family, and, most significantly, his creditors in France. He never returned. For Le Gray the Emma was to be the perfect escape, a floating paradise moving toward a land of dreams. However, Dumas was detained in Sicily, where he met Garibaldi engaged in his struggle to unify Italy. Le Gray documented the aftermath of battles in Palermo and made a portrait of Garibaldi himself. Of the score of images supposedly made, only a few survive (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., Cab. Est.). Wood-engravings of some, including the portrait of Garibaldi, were published in Le Monde illustré in July 1860. Dumas wanted to return to France to bring the General more arms. Le Gray refused to return, wanting instead to get to Egypt to experience, as Dumas put it, ‘that voluptuous absence of will’. Le Gray remained in Egypt for the last 24 years of his life. In 1869 he was teaching drawing and painting at the Ecole Polytechnique of the viceroy in Cairo and still photographing.

Eugenia Parry Janis
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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