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Monday October 16 2017

One of the reasons I was so keen to read Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris (see this recent posting for details of this book and of earlier postings based on it) was that I hoped to learn more about the various ways in which photography and painting influenced and impacted upon each other.  There are occasional references in this book to photography, but I was hoping for several pages which summarised this big picture, so to speak.  These pages never came.  But, there were some entertaining references to the earlier stages of this very complicated story.

One of the paintings that figures prominently in King’s narrative is this one, Manet’s Olympia, which features one of Manet’s favourite models, Victorine Meurent:

image

I found that version of this painting, along with more stuff about it, here.

Concerning the process by which this painting was created, King says (pp. 105-106):

Manet may also have made other images of Victorine.  Painters had been supplementing their drawings with photographs ever since Louis Daguerre, twenty-five years earlier, had created the first workable camera.  A writer in an 1856 issue of La Lumière, a journal dedicated to photography, noted the “intimate association of photography with art.” By the 1860s more than three hundred professional photographers were working in Paris, and a great many of their clients were painters for whom they did nude studies. Indeed, as many as forty per cent of all photographs registered at the Dépôt Légal were asserted to be académies done for painters - photographs of nude (usually female) models posing on chaises longues amid paraphernalia such as lyres, shields, plumed helmets, and antique vases and busts.

Even the most renowned painters of the day availed themselves of this new technology. In the 1850s Delacroix had collaborated with the photographer Eugène Durieu, who took pictures of nude models that Delacroix proceeded to turn into his paintings of odalisques. Other painters, such as Gérôme, had female models shot for them by Nadar, the most renowned photographer of the day. Born Caspard-Félix Tournachon, Nadar was a printer and caricaturist (his pseudonym came from the expression tourne à dard, meaning “bitter sting") who had also published a novel and spent time in a debtors’ prison. At the age of thirty-three, in 1853, he had turned his considerable energies to photography, taking portraits of many artists and writers and then, in 1861, a series of eerie-looking pictures of Paris’s new sewer system and water mains. An intimate of Baudelaire, by the early 1860s he was also friends with Manet, whom he photographed on several occasions. No photographs of Victorine, by Nadar or anyone else, have come to light, but she may well have appeared before his camera, either in Manet’s studio or in Nadar’s own workshop in the Boulevard des Capucines.

But King says that the impact of photography went deeper than merely aiding the creative process.  It also influenced it in others ways.  Olympia was a succèss de scandale, and one of the many complaints made about it was the seemingly crude and brash way in which it was painted.

Concerning that, King agrees (pp. 108-109) that Manet did indeed paint …:

… Victorine’s face, torso and limbs with none of the sculptural three-dimensionality and careful modulations of colour to which Salon-goers were accustomed. Instead, using sharp contrasts of colour, he created her body through a series of flat planes, producing a two-dimensional image that almost served to make the canvas seem a parody of Titian’s curvilinear Venus of Urbino.

Personally, I don’t really see this.  But I am sure that those who have seen more paintings of the sort that King is contrasting Olympia with will know what he means.

King continues:

Part of Manet’s inspiration for this technique probably came from photography. Painters had almost always required a muted light in which to work. The ideal studio was lit by a large north-facing window that diffused the sunlight and allowed the painter to see-and to capture in pigment-the softest and subtlest tones. Photographers, however, worked under quite different conditions. Anyone hoping to produce a photograph in the middle of the nineteenth century needed bright illumination since the first chemical emulsions were stubbornly insensitive to light. In the days before the invention of flash powder (a mixture of potassium chloride and powdered magnesium first successfully employed in the 1880s), photographers were forced to turn on their sitters various forms of artificial light. Most of their pyrotechnic devices, such as “limelight,” a sheet of lime heated with a hydrogen-oxygen torch, had provided a harsh, brilliant illumination that resulted in photographs with pronounced tonal contrasts. Photographs therefore displayed far fewer varieties of tone than was found on canvasses. If Victorine had indeed been photographed by Nadar (who sometimes used battery powered arc lamps to cast light on his subjects), the result would not have been dissimilar to the stark image Manet produced on his canvas, whose lack of detail, moreover, resembled the hazy images produced by photographers as a result of the long exposures required by paper-negative prints.

A pattern that repeats itself throughout the history of new methods of information storage and communication is that when a new technique is introduced it has immediate short-term impacts that are often very different from – sometimes even opposite from - the impacts it creates later, as the new technology develops and spreads.

When commentators now use the word “photographic” to describe a painting, they mean that it is more detailed and realistic than paintings usually are these days, the camera having cornered most of the market for pictorial detail.  Yet here is King explaining the rather slap-dash and crude – as contemporaries saw it at the time – beginnings of Impressionism as having been at least partly influenced by the very early versions of photography.

But, as to what influence photography had on painting once the best sort of photography got to be more “photographic”, well, if King writes about that at any length, I missed it.

I am hoping for a more thorough and wide-ranging discussion of this matter when I get around to reading this book, which I already possess and am much looking forward to, even if it is going to be rather big to be lugging around London.