Belle Epoque photography: a very modern art


Photograph by Felix Vallotton from 1899 of the Etretat beach. © Google Art Project

What happened when 19th century artists peeked through the lens of a camera.

They were among the greatest painters of the 19th century, but when it came to the decidedly modern art form of photography, artists like Edgar Degas, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard had to return to the drawing board. Initially, artists scorned the new invention: threatened by the photographic representation of reality, some suggested that the genre was too superficial. The painter and sculptor Honoré Daumier said that “photography imitates everything and expresses nothing”, while the essayist Charles Baudelaire dismissed the medium as “the refuge of bad artists”.

Painting by Felix Vallotton of the 1899 photograph of the Etretat beach
Painting by Felix Vallotton of the 1899 photograph of the Etretat beach

However, contempt for the camera did not prevent some artists from taking up photography. Painters adopted photography as a tool to record a streetscape or the pose of a model. Its spontaneity suited the Impressionists’ new interest in modern life: some translated their photographic results directly onto their canvases where the parallels between the two mediums were easily visible; other French artists took pictures for their own pleasure. Selfies, it seems, are nothing new.

Degas photo of a woman drying herself off after a bath
Degas photo of a woman drying herself off after a bath. Public domain

For Degas, photography was a new way of seeing. Suffering from permanent eye problems, the camera helped him focus. He developed a passion for photography at the end of his time with the Impressionists and became a competent photographer who developed his own prints. It was the theatricality of photography that he appreciated: his well-composed photos were darkly mysterious. Due to his penchant for voyeuristic perspectives, Degas’ camera captured awkward ‘keyhole’ moments: Among his possessions was a photograph inspiring the twisted pose of a ‘woman drying herself off’.

Only 50 photographs of Degas survive today. One of his most famous is a double portrait of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, in which the duo lean against a mirror in which the flash of Degas’ camera is reflected.

Degas painting of a woman drying herself after a bath
Degas painting of a woman drying herself after a bath. Public domain

Édouard Vuillard follows Degas’ example as a painter-photographer. Best known for its colorful and intimate interiors, Vuillard belonged to a small group of painters known as Les Nabis. He started taking photos around 1895, capturing nearly 2,000 snapshots of his family and close friends. The invention of the Kodak portable camera in 1888 reinvigorated the methods and creative vision of many artists of the late 19th century. “One moment please. Using a portable Kodak, Vuillard clicked his accordion-folded box camera over his frozen subjects and produced surprising and inventive results. He was obsessed with Misia Natanson, patron of the arts and model of artists. whose husband was the editor of The White Review. If you look closely, you will see that she was the real focus of many Vuillard group photographs.

One of the many photographs of Édouard Vuillard of Misia Natanson
One of Édouard Vuillard’s many shots of Misia Natanson. © MOMA New York


Traveling in the same artistic sphere, Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton, both seduced by the Kodak. For Bonnard, known for his large-scale paintings of bright pink and yellow gold, the 2D quality of the medium echoes the aesthetic flatness favored by Les Nabis. This vision was more important to Bonnard than expertise and so his photos, like his paintings, present mysterious silhouettes and vague outlines. Bonnard printed around 200 photographs during his lifetime.

Pierre Bonnard's selfie
Pierre Bonnard’s selfie. © Harvard Fogg Museum

Meanwhile, Félix Vallotton produced only 20 images and destroyed them because of outside criticism. Many photographs of painters have not been exhibited publicly: for example, the heirs of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau hid his photographs in order to preserve his reputation. Their paintings were beautiful and virtuous, but their photographs showed the truth, causing Belle-Époque painters to re-evaluate what it meant to be an artist.

From France Today magazine


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