By John P. Walsh
Nadar was born on April 6, 1820 to 26-year-old Thérèse Maillet and 49-year-old Victor Tournachon at 195 rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. His parents didn’t marry until 1826. After Gaspard-Félix (Nadar’s birth name) was born his parents moved to 26 rue de Richelieu. A younger brother, Adrien, was born in 1825. In an age of political censorship, Victor Tournachon’s printing business began to decline and the family moved again to 45 rue Saint-André-des-Arts on the Left Bank. Tournachon brothers’ upbringing was marked by this financial difficulty of their father, especially after the July Revolution in 1830. After Victor Tournachon closed his business in 1833 he moved with his family to Lyon. Gaspard-Félix stayed in school at Versailles where he started his creative writing and had a natural inkling for making friends. His school career effectively ended in 1837 when his father died and Gaspard-Félix moved to Lyon. Though he started medical studies with the idea of supporting his mother and brother, it belied his active interest in journalism.
In 1838, Gaspard-Félix returned to Paris. Into the 1840’s his expanding circle of friends became his new family where his nickname of Nadar began to evolve and he started a journalism career working for up-and-down literary publications, writing reviews and short stories, and drawing caricatures. Throughout the 1840’s he traveled in bohemian literary circles, made the rounds of Paris cafés and met a string of artists, writers, critics and poets such as Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) – all of whom became subjects for Nadar’s photography. Part of the reward for this aesthetic conviction was to spend time in a Paris debtor’s prison at the start of the 1850’s. While Nadar’s literary and artistic activities continued for the next forty years he also remained a type of eccentric politically-radical bohemian even after he was rich and famous.
Mid-nineteenth-century Paris was a city in upheaval both politically and physically. The Revolution of 1848 ended up toppling the constitutional monarchy and replacing it with a second republic. Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris literally turned over the old city. These developments perfectly mirrored Nadar’s character to be restlessly innovative, curious, energetic, concrete, and persuasive. In a writing career that worked in the burgeoning literary world of newspapers, magazines, journals, gazettes, etc., and, as the press was starkly partisan, Nadar encountered many personalities who favored the liberal side of the political and cultural spectrum. By way of a journal for which he was editor in chief, Nadar in 1839, met Honoré de Balzac. An active member of the Société des gens de lettres since 1844, Nadar connected to the professional literary group for friends, funds and more writing opportunities, mainly short pieces for periodicals. Nadar never became disenchanted with writing or wanting to be a literary celebrity, but starting in 1844, began to augment his skills and income by publishing caricatures. He made sketches and drawings for a short-lived Journal du dimanche, the influential Le Charivari, an antisocialist Le Journal, a new weekly La Revue comique, and also Journal pour rire (which became Journal amusant), Tintamarre, Illustrated London News, and Count Charles de Villedeuil’s L’Éclair. Nadar’s success as a draughtsman – as well as his intuitive grasp of the emerging celebrity culture in Paris – led to the establishment in 1850 of the first studio under the Nadar brand name. Patronage for his caricatures allowed him in 1854 to move to 13 rue Saint-Lazare with his mother who, with Adrien, had returned to Paris in 1845. This address eventually served as Nadar’s photographic studio. When Nadar began his photographic services career there was a handful of professional photographers in Paris. By 1870, around the time Nadar exited the full-time profession in 1873, there were many hundreds. Nadar was at the start of a cultural sensation. Practicing a new and exciting medium, the photographer still held an undetermined and possibly precarious socio-economical position in Paris –was he an artist or technician? Was Nadar’s photographic services installed in what should be called a studio or shop?
Nadar married Ernestine-Constance Lefèvre (1836-1909) in 1854, a woman half his age, who fully supported her husband’s photographic venture. His young wife was one of his first—and final–photographic models. Nadar’s portraits included a wide range of sitters, many of whom were bohemian friends and notable personalities of his day. Nadar who for years had made portrait caricatures of celebrities such as in his lithographic project, Panthéon Nadar, now took their photographic portraits. A large number of Nadar portraits included painters, sculptors, actors, writers, historians, philosophers, politicians, journalists, and musicians as well as the public bourgeois clientele. The subject Nadar photographed the most was Nadar himself. A sitter would be welcomed into the outdoor courtyard on rue Saint-Lazare which served as Nadar’s studio. His first work was often done in the natural light that achieved a high contrast between light and dark on the sitter’s features. Like in a theatrical production, sitters were costumed by Nadar in place of their street clothes which worked to generalize their social position and contemporaneity. Using plain dark backgrounds and no props to begin, Nadar’s portraits are spare. Another key practice by Nadar to achieve a successful portrait is the photographer’s skillful lighting of the sitter. From the mid1850s until the early 1870s Nadar’s relaxed and easy style inviting friends and celebrities into his studio for portraits resulted in a sympathetic rapport between a seductive and energetic photographer and his trusting and extemporaneous subjects enthusiastically interacting to produce these portraits.
Adrien learned how to take photographs from Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884). Le Gray, who was the same age as Nadar, was already one the most important photographers of his time. Adrien first set up photographic services with his older brother taking portraits. Yet Adrien and Le Gray remained contacts for Nadar only through the 1850s: Le Gray fled France in 1860 because of creditors and the brothers split professionally in a lawsuit brought by Nadar and decided in 1859. In April 1860 Nadar took over renting Le Gray’s sumptuous studio at 35, rue des Capucines and expanded it with an iron-and-glass penthouse which opened in September 1861. This became Nadar’s fashionable quarters until 1872 when he retired and, in 1873, left a thriving photographic business to his son, Paul Nadar. In 1861 the new establishment, lavish and sporting its famous outdoor sign “Nadar,” one of its unforgettable modern notes made by 21-year-old Antoine Lumière (1840-1911), was packaged to attract the urban bourgeois. Nadar also looked to charge high prices based on his appeal as an anti-establishment photographer who sometimes took erotic photographs and always cultivated Paris’s society of artists and political radicals.
At the new studio his photographs were more polished than his and Adrien’s work on rue Saint-Lazare in the 1850’s. Nadar took photographs of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and George Sand (1804-1876) in several sittings. Nadar was a man of constant curiosity and enthusiasm which led to creative innovations in taking photographs. In addition to portraiture, Nadar used artificial light to photography the Paris catacombs in 1864. For anyone who has visited this underground necropolis, it is naturally always pitch dark. The Paris sewers, a modern marvel, also attracted Nadar’s camera and artificial lighting. The first aerial photographs in history were taken by Nadar when he hooked up a gondola to a balloon and lifted into the air over Paris in 1865. It promoted both the cause of human flight and his photography business. During the seige of 1870, Nadar took to the air again with his camera for patriotic reasons.
The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, Adam Begley, Tim Duggan Books, NY, 2017.
Nadar: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (55), James H. Rubin, Phaidon Press, 2001.
The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nadar, edited by Anne-Marie Bernard, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
Nadar, Maria Morris Hambourg, Françoise Helibrun, Philippe Neagu, et.al., Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Nadar, Self Portrait, 1854.
Nadar, Self Portrait, 1855.
Nadar, Atelier at 35, boulevard des Capucines, c. 1861.
The Nadars, c. 1864. Paul Nadar (1856-1939), Gaspard-Félix Nadar (1820-1910), Ernestine-Constance Nadar née Lefèvre (1836-1909).
Nadar (and Adrien Tournachon), Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), 1855. The poet played a major role in introducing French readers to the works of German Romantic authors, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1804), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). His own poetry was a major influence on Marcel Proust (1871-1922), André Breton (1896-1966), and the avant-garde movement of Surrealism in 1920’s that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Nadar claimed that Nerval sat for him just once and only days before the bohemian poet committed suicide.
Nadar, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), 1855. In an early portrait by Nadar, his friend Baudelaire reclines in an armchair with an intense and dreamy gaze. The poet and critic was involved in producing poems to be published in 1859 as Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire’s critique of photography was its negative impact on judgement and feeling of the beautiful.
Nadar, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), 1855. The lumpy coat is likely a costume provided by Nadar that helps contrast the sitter’s slim frame and fine facial features. The formal gesture of the right hand inside the coat, a pose known in Ancient Greece to indicate good manners, had appeared in eighteenth century art to establish calm and deliberation in its subject so posed. Baudelaire’s left hand in the pocket is informal and could intentionally serve to undermine or mock the classical gesture.
Nadar, Baudelaire, c. 1856.
Nadar, Baudelaire, c. 1857.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), c. 1862. Rather than dreamy, Baudelaire’s expression — mouth turned down, eyes gleaming — is defiant and the pose is stern but whimsical.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), c. 1862.
Théodore de Banville (1823-1891). Banville was a French poet , writer and critic who was a leader of the Parnassians and whose work was later influential on French Symbolism. His first book of verse, Les Cariatides (“The Caryatids”) in 1842, owed much to the style and manner of Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The chief quality of his poetry is its technical virtuosity — he experimented with forms such as the ballad and rondeau that had been neglected for 300 years — though contemporaries also admired his poems’ erudition, wit and whimsy. His best-known collection, Les Odes funambulesques (“Fantastic Odes”) published in 1857, is dedicated to Hugo who praised it. Such is the first stanza of Mascarades: Le Carnaval s’amuse!/ Viens le chanter, ma Muse,/En suivant au hasard/ Le bon Ronsard!
Nadar, Théodore de Banville, 1854.
Nadar, Henri Murger (1822-1861), Paris, c. 1855.
Charles Philipon, Paris, 1854. The founder of Le Charivari in 1831, among other popular journals, Charles Philipon (1800-1862) was Nadar’s mentor and an important collaborator in Nadar’s bid to establish himself as a caricaturist. Philipon and Nadar, though from different generations, both shared an energetic and inventive personal character as well as a keen interest, skill, and talent for contemporary caricature (though censorship killed political cartoons after 1851). Charles Philipon, however, being the better businessman, provided Nadar in this period with editor in chief jobs at new magazines that Philipon founded and, until the day he died in 1862, stayed solicitous of Nadar’s future in illustration. Except that, after Charles Philipon died, Nadar lost all interest in the practice.
Adrien Tournachon (1825-1903), c. 1855. In the mid-to-late 1850’s Adrien collaborated closely with his older brother in the photographic studio’s services. Their work in this period is often enmeshed so that an exact delineation between them can be difficult to ascertain. Is this a self portrait or a collaborative (self-)portrait? The photograph presents Adrien at about age thirty, wearing casual attire and posing with a bohemian air marked by a broad-brimmed dark straw hat and holding a lit hand-rolled cigarette in his mouth. Adrien Tournachon opened a photographic studio at 11, boulevard des Capucines in 1853. The two brothers worked together closely in photography as each worked in other professions – Nadar as a caricaturist and Adrien as a painter (whom Nadar helped to set up). Adrien’s photography career included being active in newly-formed photographic societies, securing a patent for a photo-mechanical process, and later specializing in horse and animal photography and other photography-related businesses.
Jean-Charles Deburau (1829-1873) as Pierrot series, c. 1855. Another collaborative project by Nadar and his brother Adrien. Nadar issued the invitation for Deburau to pose in the studio. Deburau is dressed as Pierrot, the famous commedia dell’arte character. These are rare full-length portraits in Nadar’s oeuvre and include Pierrot in a variety of dramatic poses, some more natural than others, in strongly sculptural light and shadow. There is Pierrot surprised, Pierrot listening, Pierrot in pain, Pierrot laughing and, most famously, Pierrot photographer which explicitly suggests the performative dialogue between sitter and photographer.
Pierrot with fruit basket.
Pierrot with medicine.
Pierrot the thief.
Pierrot in pain.
Pierrot with coin money.
Pierrot jumping through a window.
Pierrot with envelope.
Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), Paris, c. 1855.
Théophile Gautier, c.1856.
Auguste Préault (1808-1879), Paris, c. 1854.
Nadar, Benoît Molin, Paris, 1858.
Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870), Paris, c. 1855.
François-Louis Lesueur (1820-1876), Paris, c. 1855.
Lesueur, c. 1855.
Nadar (and Adrien Tournachon), Edmond Goncourt (1822-1896) and Jules Goncourt (1830-1870), Paris, c. 1855.
Standing Nude, Paris, c.1855.
Mimi, c. 1857.
Draped Standing Nude, c. 1858.
Mademoiselle de Sanzillon, Paris, c. 1858.
Finette, c. 1857.
Mère Marie Jamet, c. 1860.
Nadar (and Adrien Tournachon), Ernesta Grisi, 1854.
Mademoiselle de Basté, c. 1855.
Nadar (and Adrien Tournachon?), Musette (also Mariette), c. 1855.
Young woman in profile, c. 1859.
Nadar (Adrien Tournachon), Jules Janin (1804-1874), Paris, c. 1855.
Kopp (d. 1872), Paris, c. 1857.
Marie Laurent (1826-1904), Paris, c. 1856.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Paris, c. 1857.
Paul Chenavard (1807-1895), Paris, c. 1857.
Rosine Stolz (1815-1903), Paris, c.1857.
Pierre Cicéri (1782-1868), Paris, c.1857.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Paris, c. 1857.
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), Paris, c.1857.
Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Paris, c. 1857.
Jean Journet (1799-1861), Paris, c. 1858.
Maria L’Antillaise, Paris, c. 1858.
Young Model, Paris, c. 1858.
François Guizot (1787-1874), Paris, c. 1857.
Moses Saphire (1795-1857), Paris, c. 1857.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Paris, 1858.
Adolphe Crémieux (1796-1880), Paris, c. 1858.
Juliette Adam (1835-1936), Paris, c. 1858.
Isadore Severin, Baron Taylor (1789-1879), Paris, c. 1858.
Emma Livry (1842-1863), Paris, c. 1859.
Nadar, Self Portrait, c. 1858.
Nadar, Self-Portrait, c. 1859.
Nadar, Self-Portrait, c. 1860.
Nadar, Self Portrait in artificial light, c.1859-1860.
Nadar, Self-Portrait, c. 1865.
Nadar Self Portrait.
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), Paris, 1860.
Nadar atelier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), Paris, 1862.
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), Paris, c. 1863.
Nadar, Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Paris, c.1864.
George Sand (1804-1876), Paris, 1864.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), Paris, c. 1864.
Sarah Bernhardt, late teens, c. 1859.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), Paris, c. 1864.
Carlotta Grisi ( 1819-1899), Paris, 1865.
Jules Champfleury (1821-1889), Paris, c. 1865.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Paris, c. 1866.
Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), Paris, 1875.
Charles Garnier (1825-1898), Paris, 1877.
Constance Quéniaux (1832-1908), Paris, 1861.
Ernestine-Constance Nadar (1836-1909), Paris, 1854.
Nadar, Ernestine Nadar, 1890.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885).
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