Photography has been significant in the art world during its one-hundred and seventy years of existence. The interest in photography as a form of art did not come about suddenly. However, it evolved in conjunction with the evolution of the medium itself. Photography’s interaction with the visual arts goes back to its beginnings. With the announcement of its discovery to the world in 1839, photography has had a profound effect on the practice and theory of art. At the same time, however, photography itself was profoundly influenced by the methods and styles of depiction that were then in vogue (Gauss).
In its efforts to be taken seriously as a form of art, photography adopted and adapted the conventions of the painting of the day. As the dominant style of painting has changed over the years, from naturalism to Impressionism, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, the style of that branch of photography that aspired to be art has changed along with it (Gauss).
Eugene Delacroix was among those artists in the nineteenth century who welcomed the discovery of photography. He saw it as something beneficial for art rather than superseding it. Delacroix was the first French painter of quality to espouse openly the idea that photographs were a proper aid for artists (Coke). Sometimes, he helped pose models for some of his own photographs.
At least for a few years he used the facilities of an active photographic studio in Paris. Delacroix was a charter member of the first photographic society in France. He supported the efforts of photographers to have their works included in the yearly Salon exhibitions. His journal and essays contain some extremely perceptive references to the subject. With no concern, Delacroix used photographs in the execution of some of his paintings and drawings (Scharf).
Delacroix’s first recorded observations on the meaning of photography for art were made in 1850. These head portraits appeared in his review of Elisabeth Cave’s publication, Drawing Without a Master. Mme Cave, for many years an intimate friend of Delacroix, had developed a method by which an artist could enhance his visual memory. Accuracy of observation was considered essential in this situation before the spirit could be allowed to enter into the creative process. By a system of copying and correcting, not unlike the technique developed later by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, perceptual acuteness hoped to increase significantly (Scharf).
According to Delacroix, it was extremely important that nothing concerning the subject should be neglected by the artist. The true character of light and shade should be captured as well as subtle tones. Photography is only a reflection of the real, or a copy. In some ways it is false because it is so exact. The imperfections shown in photography are somewhat shocking although they may literally be the deformations present in nature itself. However, these imperfections which the machine reproduces faithfully, will not offend our eyes when we look at the model without this intermediary. The eye corrects, without our being conscious of it. In painting, it is soul which speaks to soul, and not science to science (Scharf).
Delacroix believed that the artist must compromise with value and not be misled by the truth. In art everything is a lie, and the facts of external reality are only a means to the greater guidance of the instincts (Scharf). Delacroix saw photography as a blessing for art. He thought if photography was discovered thirty years earlier, his career would have been fuller. The information given by the camera to a man who paints from memory is of inestimable advantage (Seligman).
An acquaintance of Delacroix, Jules-Claude Ziegler, a former pupil of Ingres and Cornelius, lent him some of his models. Most of Ziegler’s models were males. It was Ziegler who possibly first introduced Delacroix to the newly formed group which called itself the Societe Heliographique. This group was perhaps the first of its kind in France. In the society’s publication, La Lumiere, Delacroix’s name was listed as one of the founding members. In addition to photographers, the group also included painters, writers and scientists, among other professions. Delacroix did not seem to have been active in that organization at the time. However, in 1853, apparently after he became better acquainted with the photographer, Eugene Durieu in Dieppe, his interest in photography increased (Scharf).
The history painter, Leon Riesener, was concerned with the propriety of using photographs taken by someone else and came to see Delacroix about it in 1853. He spoke of the great care in which Durieu and an assistant took their photographs and felt that their success was undoubtedly due to the seriousness with which they were executed. He suggested that Delacroix publish his sketches as photographs. He had already thought of doing so. Then, Reiesener confessed that, trembling with anticipation, he had asked Durieu and his associate whether without indiscretion and without being accused of plagiarism he might use their photographs for painting pictures (Scharf).
Delacroix’s greatest involvement with photography took place around 1854 in which he spent a lot of time in Durieu’s studio. There, he advised and assisted his photographer friend in the arranging and lighting of his subjects. Sometimes, with the models posing for only a minute or two, both photographs and sketches were made of them. Later, Delacroix went to Dieppe and brought with him Durieu’s photographs to draw from. He shared these photographs with the painter Paul Chenavard. Located in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris is an album of thirty-one photographs which once belonged to Delacroix. These photographs, primarily consisting of anatomies, have served the artist for several drawings and for at least one painting. The photographs in his album are of nude and partly draped men and women, most of them posed in the favor of the artist (Scharf).
Although these instances of direct or presumed dependence on such mechanical models are of interest, the impact of photography on Delacroix’s art was both limited and transient. Not one of his major works in known to be based on a photographic source. His enthusiasm for this discovery seems to have vanished rather quickly and photography is not mentioned in the later pages of his journal. The whole matter could be scaled down if it wasn’t for the larger ramifications (Trapp).
It was not by chance that in Delacroix’s review of Drawing Without a Master the virtues of photography were closely coupled with those of memory. Both could filter and impose a selective order upon experience. The artificial photograph, with its forced contrasts and reversed image, constituted a positive advantage. Facts became challenging and, according to De Planet, Delacroix sometimes used mirrors to study his work. In its reduction of the original, the photograph conveniently isolates aspects of form or, in reproductions of artwork, style (Trapp).
The whole purpose of Delacroix working from photographs, along with his belief in memory drawing, or any other procedure he adopted was to capture what he called the “tangible.” His ultimate aim however, was not to achieve literal description but to unite the two worlds that had equal claims to his loyalty, the one rational and objective, the other subjective and intuitive. The final product was to be a specific object and a stimulus to the imagination implied in his description of painting as a hieroglyphic, but one enriched with individual beauty, form, character, and compelling analogies to the world of nature (Trapp).
It is in his conception of what justifies departure from nature that Delacroix emerges as a man of Romanticism. Whereas theoreticians of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century had sanctioned a departure from nature in the direction of embellishment or improvement, embodied in the concept of “la belle nature.” Romantic aesthetics advocated a new treatment of nature, which now became submissive to the dictates of the imagination and the subjective interpretation of the individual artist (Mras).
After Delacroix’s death in 1863, his devoted housekeeper, Jeanne-Marie le Guillou, sent Constant Dutilleux, a Flemish painter, some of the works which had been in the artist’s possession. Among these works may have been the album of photographs for it appears to be the one referred to in one of Dutilleux’s writings which was published in 1929 by Raymond Escholier (Scharf). Dutilleux noted, “Delacroix did not simply admire photographs in theory, he drew a great deal from photographic plaques and from proofs on paper. I own an album made up of poses of models, both men and women, which were prescribed by him and caught by the lens before his very eyes. Incredible phenomenon! The choice of nature, the posture of distribution of the light, the twist of the limbs are so singular that one could say of many of these proofs that they were taken after the master’s own original works. The artist was somehow the sovereign master of machine and material. The radiance of the ideal that he bore within himself transformed models hired at three francs a session into vanquished heroes, dreamers, and palpitation nymphs” (Coke).
Further evidence of Delacroix’s involvement with photography is indicated in a letter he wrote to Dutilleux in 1854. He wrote, “How I regret that such a wonderful invention arrived so late, I mean as far as I am concerned! The possibility of studying such results would have had an influence on me which I can only imagine by the usefulness which they still have for me, even with the little time that I can give to serious study. They are palpable demonstrations of the free design of nature, of which we have hitherto had only betray imperfect ideas” (Coke).
By the time this note was written, photography had spread all over Europe and to the Orient and the Americas. A huge amount of landscapes, genre pictures, and portraits were being made by amateurs and professionals. Artists were also making extensive use of photographs in all these categories. Those who doubted the possibilities of photography and its claim to being an art form included a host of critics and writers for the popular journals of the time (Caffin). In 1853, Robert Hunt wrote in The Art Journal, “In the last exhibition of the Royal Academy, pictures and bits of pictures could be detected in which the aid of the camera was apparent” (Coke).
After the death of Dutilleux in 1865, Philippe Burty received the artist’s papers and perhaps the album. There was an inscription scribbled in it, signed ‘Ph.B.69’. This claims that the album was purchased by the writer at the sale of the Delacroix atelier held in 1864 and that a considerable number of pencil studies made from these photographs were found in boxes in the artist’s studio. After Burty’s death, his papers which included those of Dutilleux, passed into the hands of Maurice Tourneux who presented the album of photographs to the Bibliotheque Nationale in 1899 (Scharf).
Nonetheless, the ‘etudes au crayon d’apres ces photographies’ described by ‘Ph.B.’ must include some sheets of sketches now in the collection of the Bayonne Museum. At least ten of the figures drawn on them are unmistakably based on photographs of the muscular male model to be found in the album. The drawings are linear, and from their appearance should leave little doubt that Delacroix used the photographs as anatomical studies though he may well have been intrigued by the strange tonal delicacy with which the forms are depreciated (Coke).
In 1855, still in Dieppe, Delacroix must have brought with him photographs like those in the album. He noted that he looked enthusiastically and tirelessly at these photographs of nude men since they helped him better understand anatomy. Delacroix stated, “I look enthusiastically and without tiring at these photographs of nude men. This human body, this admirable poem, from which I am learning to read and I learn far more by looking than the inventions of any scribbler could ever teach me” (Coke).
The photographs of male and female nudes made for Delacroix are the earliest nudes directly connected with a group of drawings or paintings. Delacroix also found photographs useful when traveling away from Paris. In 1854, during a stay in Dieppe, he referred in his journal to his practice of drawing from photographs he had brought with him to study. Some art historians feel that Delacroix refreshed his vision with photographs. They challenged his eye which was trained to see within the bounds of rather strict artistic conventions (Coke).
Some art historians have discerningly commented that the attraction of the photograph as an object of study was more than one of simple convenience. It challenged Delacroix’s own perception experience, and, in some measure, as an objective verification of his exceptional awareness of the selective reference to visual fact (Coke).
Delacroix executed a small painting of an odalisque which is signed and dated 1857. It obviously depends on one of the photographs in his album. The painting, now in the Niarchos Collection, may be the odalisque which he began early in 1854 when he came back from Dieppe that year. Delacroix was not motivated at the time but completed the painting three years later. The reference to working from a daguerreotype does not rule out the use of a paper print necessarily since ‘daguerreotype’ was then very commonly used as a generic term for photographs of all kinds (Scharf).
In an essay addressed to students, Delacroix touched on the important difference between the particularity of camera vision and the weakness of human vision. He stated, “The daguerreotype is more than a tracing, it is the mirror of the object. Certain details almost always overlooked in drawing from nature here take on characteristic importance and thus introduce the artist to complete knowledge of construction as light and shade are found in their true character (Coke).
In his catalogue of Delacroix’s works, Robaut called the painting Femme d’Alger dans son interieur and he made an interesting observation about it. He noted that even though there was no reference to the use of a photograph, the nonchalance of the movement is brought out by the position of the legs which seem perfectly relaxed. That natural quality which Delacroix found so striking in Durieu, but lacked in Marcantonio, characterizes his Odalisque. Even the awkward turn of the foot with the toes facing out, the clumsy cramping of one leg under the other, the natural tilt of the head, and the steadying of the hand makes a strange contrast with the traditional elegant pose. Within most of Delacroix’s works, the forms of subjects tend to be completely false as if he altered them deliberately. An example of this would be the foreshortened thighs in the Odalisque which is credible enough in the photograph but becomes too unbelievable in the painting (Scharf).
A painting is a painting, whatever the media used or the material on which it is painted. A colored reproduction of a painting, is not a painting. It is something quite different. The fact it may be given an embossed, paint-like surface, put in a frame and hung on a wall, does not alter the case one jot. The nearer it comes to the original, in some ways, the more objectionable it becomes, for if there is any danger of it being mistaken for the original, it becomes a cheat. As for the photography of painting and all the other three-dimensional works of art, unless the cameraman is an artist, he had better take up some other occupation (Lewis).
As the camera gained acceptance as a reliable visual reporter, its potential became apparent to photographers who had something more to say then could be communicated by a mere snapshot. Even though subjects of photography have shifted greatly from the beginning of its time, photography is now in a new form. Photography is, oddly, returning to its beginnings for subject matter (Manley).
Caffin, Charles. Photography as a Fine Art. New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1971.
Coke, Van Deren. The Painter and the Photograph. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1964.
Gauss, Grundberg. Photography and Art. New York: Cross River Press, 1987.
Lewis, John and Edwin Smith. Reproducing Art. Great Britain: W.S. Cowell Ltd, 1969.
Manley, Joan. Documentary Photography. New York: Time Inc., 1972.
Mras, George. Eugene Delacroix’s Theory of Art. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Scharf, Aaron. Art and Photography. Penguin Books Ltd, 1968.
Seligman, Janet. Painting Photography Film. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1967.
Trapp, Frank Anderson. The Attainment of Delacroix. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.