Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884)

“Watch the horizon, watch the horizon. . . that’s Le Gray.” Sam Wagstaff, 1987

Gustave Le Gray lived what is called a “slipping down life.” At the beginning of his career, he seemed to have been known as Legray and later as “Le Gray.” His life and career started out on a very promising trajectory but the twisted turning and rather strange saga of his journey ended very badly with the artist fleeing from France and dying in Egypt. Today he is considered to be one of the most important photographers of the nineteenth century–groomed by the famous painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), trained as an artist, a technician who improved and developed photography, and supporter of photography as an art form–but Le Gray made a series of missteps that derailed his promise. But as he moved from one disaster to another, Le Gray created a wide-ranging body of significant works in photography. Called a “tortured soul” by Felix Nadar the brother of the more famous photographer Nadar, Le Gray was apparently bad with money, bad at business and careless with women, and his work was nearly forgotten until the late 1980s when the American collector of photography, Sam Wagstaff (1921-1987) discovered Le Gray and introduced the photo historian Eugenia Parry Janis to his work. Together the two hunted down his work and gathered it together, and when Wagstaff, companion to Robert Mapplethorpe, died, the work came to the J. Paul Getty collection.

After his period of study with Paul Delaroche, Le Gray’s parents financed a trip to Switzerland and Italy so that he could study art abroad, a quest undertaken by many artists. But Le Gray’s trip was interrupted by what Janis, writing for the Museum of Modern Art, termed “an untimely marriage in 1844.” One could only supposed that by “untimely” Ms Janis meant that Le Gray had met a young woman in Italy, the lady became pregnant, and the lady became his wife, forcing the young couple to return to France. Now Le Gray had a family to support and soon another child was on the way. It is possible, as Janis suggested, that he turned to photography as a faster method of making art that would earn him a living without taking his chances as a painter in the highly competitive Salons. However, Le Gray was smart and enterprising about the way he established himself as a photographer, joining the right societies, associating with the right people and contributing to the technology of photography. He earned the right to his place on the famous Mission Héliographique in 1851. He was a teacher who instructed a number of future photographers, such as Henri Le Secq (1818-1882) and Charles Nègre (1820-1880), and published a book on photography explaining who his new waxed paper process worked, Traité pratique de photographie sur papier et sur verre (1850).

By placing himself in the world of artists who wanted to promote photography, particular particularly paper photography, Le Gray put himself outside the commercial realm of those photographers for whom making portraits on a mass scale was a straightforward business. Wittingly or unwittingly, he created an unexploited niche in the photographic trade for himself and his work. For someone trained in the fine arts, his course as a photographic artist was the only one that would have suited his training and his sentiment. As Le Gray said,

It is my deepest wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole, true place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it. It is up to the men devoted to its advancement to set this idea firmly in their minds.

Le Gray had a sense of where there might be a need for photography in the larger culture and sought out arenas already familiar to the fine arts and that would have some measure of government support and public interest. The Mission Héliographique was, as was pointed out in an earlier post on this website, an extension of a nationalistic and antiquarian interest in the past of the nation that was part of the bygone Romantic period. The establishment of the Second Empire, under Napoléon III, continued the research into the past favored by his uncle. Indeed, the photographic series begun by Le Gray immediately after his work with the Mission had Napoléonic connections–the Forest of Fontainebleau and its famous château frequented by Napoléon and Josephine. But for the photographer, the Forest offered far more artistic opportunity than a Romantic nostalgia. Because the Place of Fontainebleau had been used by French kings since Medieval times, the Forest itself was the focus of the post-Revolutionary interest in a monarchical past. Enlarged and renovated from its original use as a hunting lodge by François Première in the sixteenth century, the palace and the grounds were done in the Italian manner by Italian artists, some of whom left England when King Henry VIII dismissed alien influences for a native Tutor architecture.


Map by Claude Françoise Denecourt

Situated less than an hour from Paris, the Forest itself is three times as large as the island of Manhattan and contains more than a palace; it is the site of the picturesque village of Barbizon where artists were gathering to work in the open air among the ancient trees and towering rocks. The forest had been one of the first tourist sites at the very beginnings of the idea of tourism and, after the Napoléonic Wars, the forest belonged to the people who began to claim their territory, trudging through the woods to the extent that in 1839 a retired Napoleonic soldier, Claude Françoise Denecourt (1788-1875), decided to make a map of the forest, guiding other explorers to specific trees and specific views. Although in Denecourt’s time the railway system was minuscule, by Le Gray’s period the rail network had considerably developed and a visitor who boarded a train in Paris, would ride to Fontainebleau, and buy a Denecourt map at the train station before walking to the forest. Today the forty-two thousand acres are more overgrown than they were when the Barbizon artists were working near the village and the inn in which they stayed, the Auberge Ganne, is now a museum.

From the 1820s, shortly after the Academy had established a prize for landscape painting, artists had taken to painting outside of Paris, especially in sites of former palaces, Versailles, Saint-Cloud and Fontainebleau. In the era of Le Gray, the notables of Barbizon included Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, and Jean-François Millet. Although the totality of the work done by artists around the environs of Paris could not be seen at the time of its making as a total body of work the way we can see it today, it seems clear, as a recent exhibition, “Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet” (March 16 – July 6, 2014) at the Saint Louis Art Museum, suggests, this body of landscape art provided a comprehensive view of what the nation of France was, from its most ancient time to its most modern era. As curator Simon Kelly said. “We look at the ways in which landscape painters and photographers traveled around France and discovered and explored the range of history and geography in their nation and really developed new visions of what the nation meant.”

Gustave Le Gray was part of the photographic creation of France. Not only did he catalogue the architectural heritage, he also sought out examples of nature, the oldest trees, the most enigmatic rocks, the most silent groves. Like the complicated Medieval buildings, the Forest could never been seen as a whole and could be known only through its parts. Entering into the forest was like entering into a pristine world, albeit trod by tourists and hikers and amateur rock climbers and eager sketchers. It is unclear whether or not Le Gray stuck to the routes laid out by Denecourt but it is probable that his landmarks coincided with those of the map traced out by the old soldier. Using the waxed papers that pressed down the fibers before saturating them in chemicals, Le Gray took advantage of the flexibility of paper that could, on one hand, show sufficient detail, and on the other hand, blurred the excessive detail of the Daguerreotypes in what he called his “theory of sacrifice.” The idea was not new, Delacroix had also asserted that some details needed to be sacrificed, so to speak, for the sake of the overall effect, but to attempt to balance the amount of details presented by a mechanical instrument such as the camera was quite difficult. Le Gray wrote that “From my point of view, the artistic beauty of a photographic print, on the contrary, nearly always lies in the sacrifice of certain details so as to produce an impression that sometimes achieves the most sublime art.”

In her very interesting 2010 article, “‘Le Flou of the Painter Cannot Be le Flou of the Photographer.’ An Ambivalent Notion in Mid-Nineteenth Century French Photographic Criticism,” Pauline Martin discussed the problem of detail in photography as it was discussed in the 1850s. The term flou, which today means soft focus or blurriness in photography, was originally a term connected to painting, referring to the brushless transparent surface of a canvas. Indeed, according to Martin, Henri de la Blanchère, a student of Le Gray and an advocate of paper photography  stated,

 Sacrifice, eliminate all these details, wipe away your thousand insignificant nothings, and you will have a whole that is truly artistic, truly satisfying..

I am not in any way advocating the production of images that are flou: I am simply reiterating that if one insists on striving for the maximum possible sharpness, the result will be an image that is cold and hard and lacking in depth and life. 

The point that Blanchère was making was that while in painting flou was a merit, it was a problem for photography. As Auguste Belloc put it Le flou of the painter cannot be le flou of the photographer; this is a fact that no one should fail to recognize.” Indeed for photographers, such as Le Gray, who wanted to produce a work of art, it was understood that too much detail was read as too mechanical, while any blurriness was actually the result of a failure of the medium, such as its inability to freeze motion, and a failure on the part of the artist to control the medium. Le Gray used the play of light and shadows in the forest to his advantage and it is interesting to observe him taking into account the way in which during long exposures light blanches out the foreground, enabling the camera of concentrate on the middle ground which is the point of focus. The details of the foreground, grass, leaves, rocks and so on are obliterated into a pale foundation for the trees with their carefully delineated bark and layers of leaves. The end result is not botanical but magical, giving the viewer the impression of having not just taken a trail into the woods but also having taken a step back in time.

Tree Study, Forest of Fontainebleau gustave le gray 1856

Gustave Le Gray. Tree Study in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1856)

 The next post on Le Gray will discuss his work on the ocean and sky. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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