We tend to think of the great 19th-century authors as remote, patrician figures, standing aloof from lesser mortals like those high-functioning autists portrayed in public memorials, but looking at the personalities photographed by Félix Tournachon aka Nadar (1820-1910), we feel as if we knew them intimately, and – fancy dress and whiskers aside – they look a lot like one of us. His sitters frequently belonged to his circle of friends, and this sense of proximity and interactivity was the chief effect he strove for as an artist. Nadar was a committed republican, and one feels that for him, regardless of their individual accomplishments, all the men and women he photographed were of the same clay, and creatures of the same slick and shiny present.
There is nothing boxy about these pictures, as if for Nadar a box could only be a coffin, and he avoided props (fluted columns, potted palms and the like), the better, no doubt, to erase the dividing line between the space of the photograph and that of the spectator.
Few portraits I know give us a stronger sense of what they leave out, and of the moments before and after the closing of the shutter. His subjects appear to be hot off the street, their nerves still jangling from the hustle and bustle on boulevard des Capucines (which was still under construction at the time), their coat sleeves or trousers perhaps still spotted with puddle water from a passing hansom cab.
Jules Janin (1804-1874) is no longer read, but in his day he was famous as a drama critic, and was greatly feared by playwrights and theatre directors.
Jules Janin (circa 1856)
He was by all accounts a bumptious and turbulent man much given to legal wrangling and literary feuding, and one senses that his photographic session with Nadar was the one brief interval on that day in which he desisted, however briefly, from talking. He was clearly a gassy fellow in more sense than one, and it is not hard to imagine that, mere seconds before this picture was taken, he had had to suppress a garlicky burp in reminiscence of a protracted and copious luncheon.1
While Janin comes across as sated and replete, Camille Corot (1796-1875) seems full of appetite for what lies before him. As a precursor of impressionism, Corot was one of the first landscape painters to prefer the open air to the confines of his studio, and this portrait has a breezy and spontaneous feel, as if he were just setting out for a ramble in the countryside. The artist’s expression is alert and good-natured and he is poised on the edge of his seat. His head is turning to one side as if something in the distance had just caught his fancy, but the twists in his body and angle of his walking stick suggest other paths he might follow, all of which seem equally inviting.
Camille Corot (1863)
One is also highly aware – elliptically, that is – of Nadar himself. He was a warm, expansive personality with an outstanding gift for friendship, and in many of his pictures one senses the force of his presence and the rousing effects of his banter.
It is striking, however, how tired and careworn a lot of them look. Corot is a spry 60-year-old, but many of Nadar’s subjects look seedy, not to say unwell. Many appear middle-aged in their 30s and a fair few would be dead before the decade was out.
Despite the vast sanitation programme inaugurated by Baron Haussmann Paris in the 1850s was still a filthy place by today’s standards, and few of Nadar’s clients enjoyed the comforts and conveniences we take for granted today. These, broadly speaking, were bourgeois of the period, and were not therefore the great unwashed. But the great too were unwashed. Hot water, for instance, was a luxury at the time – hence, no doubt, the dull, filmy look of their hair – and no reader of 19th century fiction, letters or journals can fail to be struck by the plethora of ailments that people were afflicted by (gout, gallstones, cholic, rickets, etc), or by the frequency with which they took to their beds.
Some of this wear and tear was self-induced and many of Nadar’s sitters wear their vices on their (well-worn) sleeves. VD was rife among the men, many of whom consorted with prostitutes (Baudelaire, Manet, Maupassant all died of syphilis) and this was a period when absinth or opium were easily available and consumed to excess.
More to the point, perhaps, the industrial revolution was pumping ever more CO2s into the atmosphere and flesh and steel had already forged their satanic alliance. Nadar’s contemporaries were perhaps experiencing a brand of spiritual exhaustion unknown to previous generations, but which we their descendants can easily recognize as the first signs of burn-out.
They are not the immortals we celebrate today, but timebound mortals like ourselves, visibly haunted by their work and by its consuming demands on their energies, but engaged body and soul in the struggles of their day, and driven by the desire to produce something greater than themselves. Like no other documents from this period, Nadar’s best portraits bear witness to the force of this engagement, and convey a powerful sense of cultural history in the making.
One of Nadar’s finest portraits is of Champfleury , a novelist and art critic who was a passionate proponent of realism in art and literature.
With his squinty-eyed expression, and faintly vole-like hair-styling he looks like a peevish kind of fellow, and the balled fist in his trouser pocket seems particularly significant when we know that he and Nadar once came to blows and nearly fought in a duel.
Champfleury, circa 1860
CHARLES PHILIPON (1800-1862)
I had known this photograph (circa 1857)) for years without knowing a thing about its subject.
Philipon always struck me as a ponderous, dour-looking man, not easily moved to like or to love a thing. One who did not suffer fools gladly, and trained a jaundiced eye on his contemporaries. I was repelled by his stringy, greasy-looking hair, the soggy cigar and tobacco-browned fingers, and the creases in the palm of his hand suggesting to me a lizard’s throat or armpit.
But from a search online I learned that he was one of the more engaged – and engaging – personalities of the period, a bold and inspired caricaturist – famous for a cartoon in which the king’s head morphs into a pear – who put his balls on the line – even doing a year-long stint in jail – to defeat the forces of reaction in French political life.
So I must have misread Nadar’s portrait. He might have been hungover, or otherwise unwell. He might have been depressed. Or it could be, with a only a few years left to live, that he was simply worn out from the fight.
Whatever the case may be, the shadow projected onto the studio wall behind him slyly caricatures the caricaturist, and seems to show a leaner, keener, and more vital individual.
ATHANASE COQUEREL (circa 1857)
Athanase Coquerel (1820-1875) is surely one of Nadar’s queerer customers, and one of the most alien, certainly, from our modern perspective (with old Victor Cousin (see below) as a close runner-up)
Before writing this essay I assumed he was a member of the legal profession – did he argue for the defence or the prosecution? I could never make up my mind – but it turns out the hefty tome he’s wielding here is not the Code Civil but the Christian Bible.
Like many of Nadar’s sitters he has that clamp-mouth so often seen in the first daguerreotypes – due in part, no doubt, to the slow shutter speeds.
People didn’t say cheese in the mid 19th century, but we can hypothesize that the mouth of Athanase Coquerel was more often open than shut and that he had very small teeth. One imagines him possessing a shrill and ringing voice, and it is likely that his homilies went on for a very long time.
A vigorous talker, he was also, without doubt, a do-er. His mutton chops suggest a man who bristled with energy, and that odd and forceful compression of the lips denotes a very strong will.
Looking at this picture Coquerel seems filled with a self-belief as intense at least as his belief in God, and behind those figure-of-8 glasses he defies you not to see him as he sees himself.
VICTOR COUSIN (1792-1867)
This portrait is not the best example of Nadar’s style, but is undoubtedly one of the oddest.
Cousin himself seems, on first impression, a very strange bird.
His hair looks like wind-blown cirrus clouds and invites comparisons to the mad professor stereotype, but this was a style made fashionable by the romantics in the early 1800s, – in the years, that is, of Cousin’s youth – reflecting the turbulence of that era and the violent emotions in which they exulted.
Not that the mad professor simile is entirely off the mark. Cousin is notably unkempt for the smart 1860s and it is clear that he and Eugène Delacroix (below) patronised very different tailors. The seams of his coat are puckered at the shoulder and the material is slack in all the wrong places as though it had been cut for a much bigger man (Mr Jules Janin, for instance). So scruffy is his overall appearance one half expects to see that his flies are undone.
Then there is the awkwardness of the pose itself.
Cousin’s legs are splayed and he sits bolt upright with his arms hanging down like an ape’s. He is tense in every muscle, and betrays an almost comical earnestness in his willingness to comply with the demands of the shoot. Indeed, in his anxiousness to not flinch a muscle he resembles a frightened schoolboy who has been summoned to the headmaster’s study and told to sit up straight.
The effect is so ludicrous, in fact, one wonders if it had not been intended, if Nadar – harbouring some kind of grudge against the sitter – had not tricked him into thinking that his bust alone would be featured. Either that, or – as a sworn enemy of cant and pomposity, he had not seen this picture as a chance to expose the artifice employed in official portrait-making, and wished to underline the strain involved – especially for figures of Victor Cousin’s standing – in maintaining public appearances.
EUGÈNE DELACROIX (1798-1863)
In this image we discover the painter as an ageing and dandified beau, remarkably handsome for his 60-odd years, but somewhat stiff and disdainful, the photographer’s ebullience and charm having apparently failed to loosen him up. In the late 1850s the artist was at the height of his fame, and comes across as stolid in his pride, as though he had already become a statue of himself. Delacroix pronounced himself appalled by the result, and entreated Nadar in the strongest possible terms to destroy the negatives, as though confronted too directly with the evidence of his vanity.
In its stuffy formality, this portrait is hardly representative of Nadar’s work in general, but it is safe to assume – given his psychological acumen and mastery of the medium – that he knew exactly what he was doing, and got exactly the result he was looking for.
1) The relationship(s) between diet and literary creation is beautifully captured in The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. HEART, n. An automatic, muscular blood-pump. Figuratively, this useful organ is said to be the seat of emotions and sentiments—a very pretty fancy which, however, is nothing but a survival of a once universal belief. It is now known that the sentiments and emotions reside in the stomach, being evolved from food by chemical action of the gastric fluid. The exact process by which a beefsteak becomes a feeling—tender or not, according to the age of the animal from which it was cut; the successive stages of elaboration through which a caviar sandwich is transmuted to a quaint fancy and reappears as a pungent epigram; the marvelous functional methods of converting a hard-boiled egg into religious contrition, or a cream-puff into a sigh of sensibility—these things have been patiently ascertained by M. Pasteur, and by him expounded with convincing lucidity.