Taking light

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 46

Gallerist, novelist, photographer and aeronaut – the life of Nadar sounds like a Walter Mitty fantasy but, says Laura Paterson, it's all true

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, whose professional pseudonym was Nadar, was the first great portrait photographer. He was born in Paris in 1820 and, even before embarking on his illustrious career behind the camera, he had already made a name for himself as a journalist, caricaturist and pioneering balloonist, who counted among his friends luminaries of the age such as Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier and George Sand.

As photography began to become lucrative in the early 1850s, a banker friend of Félix proposed backing him in a studio. His skills as a caricaturist were in such high demand, however, that he persuaded Adrien, his younger brother and an impoverished painter, to have photography lessons and become the studio's principal photographer in his place.

Their partnership lasted until January 1853, when they quarreled and split. After a long and acrimonious struggle, Félix won the exclusive right to use the Nadar name. Now behind the camera himself, it was during these years that he made his finest portraits. Two of them are shown here: a tondo of Félix's son Paul (with an enchanting sketch of the child's head on the verso) and a unique, oversized print of the celebrated mime Charles Deburau. Both show Nadar's informal, intimate and yet meticulous approach when photographing his sitters.

In 1860, Nadar, by now the proprietor of the most-important portrait photography studio in Paris (and beyond), moved the studio from his garden apartment in Rue Saint-Lazare to a much grander space on the Boulevard des Capucines. From now on, unless the sitter was particularly compelling or illustrious, Nadar left the actual photography to his staff.

Nadar was an accomplished businessman, capitalizing on the growing popularity and accessibility of photography with his extraordinary portraits – in some respects, he created the cult of celebrity with which we are now all too familiar. He was more than this, though. Nadar looked towards the medium's future, pioneering underground photography, made using artificial light, as well as experimenting with aerial photography, taken from his enormous hot air balloon, Le Géant.

Both Portrait of Paul Nadar and Le Mime Charles Deburau were in the collection of Gérard Lévy, a celebrated Parisian esthete, known as "the man with the carnation". From the 1960s until his death in 2016, Gérard Lévy was one of the most renowned international experts on French 19th-century and Surrealist photography. The works will be sold as part of an important larger group from the Lévy Estate to be offered in the Photographs sale in New York in April.

Laura Paterson is Bonhams Head of Photographs.

Sale: Photographs
New York
Friday 5 April at 4pm
Enquiries: Laura Paterson
+1 917 206 1653
[email protected]


Related auctions