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Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) (French, 1820–1910)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French photographer, printmaker, draughtsman, writer and balloonist. He was born into a family of printers and became familiar with the world of letters very early in life. He abandoned his study of medicine for journalism, working first in Lyon and then in Paris. In the 1840s Nadar moved in socialist, bohemian circles and developed strong republican convictions. Around this time he adopted the pseudonym Nadar (from ‘Tourne à dard’, a nickname he gained because of his talent for caricature). For his friend Charles Baudelaire, Nadar personified ‘the most astonishing expression of vitality’. In 1845 he published his first novel, La Robe de Déjanira, and the following year he embarked on his career as a caricaturist, working for La Silhouette and Le Charivari and subsequently for the Revue comique (1848) and Charles Philipon’s Journal pour rire (1849), which later became the Journal amusant (1856). In London in 1863 Nadar discovered the drawings in Punch and met the illustrators Paul Gavarni and Constantin Guys, who became a friend. Nadar ended his career as a caricaturist in 1865, by which time he had become famous as a photographer.

Nadar became well known for his Panthéon Nadar, a lithographic panorama of contemporary French cultural celebrities, published on two occasions, once in the Lanterne magique (1854) and once in Le Figaro (1858), but unfinished. For some of the c. 300 figures (Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, for example) Nadar had recourse to already existing portrait photographs. Following this use of photography, Nadar decided to establish himself as a photographer, initially with his brother Adrien Tournachon (1825–1903), whom he apprenticed to the photographer Gustave Le Gray in 1853, before himself training with Camille d’Arnaud and Auguste Bertsch (d 1871). In 1854–5 the two brothers produced a series of portraits of the mime artist Charles Deburau, illustrating various expressions, for example Surprise and Terror. In translating the emotions, according to the studies of the neurologist Guillaume Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne, Adrien, with his interest in theatre, played an important role in this partnership. A number of his own portraits, for example that of the critic Jules Husson Champfleury, and his self-portraits have nothing to fear from comparison with those by Félix. Subsequently, relations between the two brothers deteriorated and led to two lawsuits in 1856–7, during the course of which Félix claimed exclusive right to the pseudonym Nadar. This affair showed a lack of solidarity between them from which the weaker Adrien never recovered.

Nadar’s first photographs were portraits of friends made in 1854–5: of the writers Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval (the only known photograph of him) and Charles Baudelaire, for example. He rapidly became known as the portrait photographer who took as his subjects the most interesting personalities of his day. Gustave Doré (1855 and 1859), Honoré Daumier (1856), Sarah Bernhardt (c. 1860), Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet and many others were taken by him. He also produced some remarkable images of his family, for example of his wife Ernestine, his son Paul, his servants and numerous self-portraits. Nadar and his brother were the first French photographers to create a purely photographic aesthetic for their portraits. It is in total contrast to the rigid and conventional style that had made the fortune of numerous other practitioners. Nadar’s portraiture is characterized by the rejection of any artifice such as the use of accessories, painted backdrops or retouching (e.g. his simple portrait of a Young West Indian Woman, 1855, Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). His direct approach to his sitters shows his concern to grasp their inner life. The most successful and often most beautiful images are those that reveal an intimacy between photographer and model. This is the case in all his early work, where he made particular use of side lighting and where the light and shade alone create an almost romantic atmosphere around the figure. Influenced by his early contacts with Deburau and Duchenne de Boulogne and by his experience as a caricaturist, he focused above all on the faces, and the gaze of the sitter sometimes assumes a disturbing intensity, as in, for example, the portraits of Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire and Ernestine. Nadar used the wet collodion glass negative process (and from 1861 dry collodion), which at that time had supplanted the daguerreotype as the most appropriate for portraiture.

In order to cater for an increasing clientele, Nadar was forced to change his premises. His first studio was at 113 rue St Lazare, but the best known was that at 25 boulevard des Capucines, where he moved in 1860. These premises became a meeting-place for artists and intellectuals opposed to the imperial regime, and Nadar also rented the studio out for exhibitions, notably the first public showing of the group who were later to be christened Impressionists (April–May 1874). In the 1860s Nadar was so much in demand as a portrait photographer that he had to employ assistants. He then took a less active part in the production of his portraits. He also had to resort to the commercial formula of making cartes de visite, abandoning his larger format of 180×240 mm. Financially ruined by the War of 1870, the Paris Commune (for which he provided a balloon postal and observation service at his own expense) and his attempts at ballooning, Nadar took on a more broadly based clientele made up of the bourgeoisie and people who were not acquaintances. This had an effect on his output: his portraits, made more rapidly, became less sensitive. Towards 1885, he had more or less regained his former wealth, and from 1887 his son Paul Nadar (1856–1939) began to relieve him in the studio, carrying on his father’s activity in a very different spirit, gravitating towards more glamorous and artificial portrayals, as in his portrait of Lillie Langtry (Paris, Bib. N.).

Nadar was a pioneer in other photographic fields besides portraiture, in particular aerial photography, which he practised from his various balloons (e.g. Avenue de l’Impératrice). He also attempted underground photography in artificial light (electric arc lamps and bunsen batteries), producing c. 100 pictures of the catacombs and sewers of Paris (1861–2; Paris, Bib. N.). These experiments were accompanied by other technical researches: microphotography, snaps in artificial light using magnesium and aerial navigation. Nadar was one of the first to conceive of the ‘photographic interview’: the series of eight photographs (taken on roll film by his son Paul) of his conversation with the chemist and colour theorist Michel-Eugène Chevreul on the eve of his 100th birthday appeared in the Journal illustré in September 1886 (original 27 images in Paris, Bib. N.).

After staying in Marseille from 1895 to 1904, where he opened a studio, Nadar returned to the region of Paris. He remained interested in what was happening in France in the field of photography and founded the journal Paris photographe, edited by Paul, in 1891. In 1899 he published his memoirs Quand j’étais photographe. He remains a crucial figure in the history of photography for having created a type of modern portrait based on the direct psychological approach to his subject and for his pioneering technical feats and championing of the medium. With few exceptions, Nadar’s negatives are held in the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites (head office, Hôtel de Sully, Paris); studio prints are held in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Hélène Bocard
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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