The J. Paul Getty Museum opens July 9th the largest exhibition ever held in the United States of Gustave Le Gray photographs. Le Gray (1820–1884) is considered France’s most important 19th-century photographer, acclaimed for his technical innovations, noted as the teacher of other important photographers, and prized for the extraordinary imagination he brought to picture making. Le Gray applied his training as a painter and skills as an inventor to the fledgling art form of photography.
Gustave Le Gray, Photographer will be on view at the Getty Museum, its only U.S. venue, from July 9 through September 29, 2002. The exhibition, selected from a survey of Le Gray’s work created by and shown at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the spring of 2002, presents Le Gray’s career through more than 100 rare photographs made between the early 1850s and 1867—many of which have never been shown before in this country. Le Gray’s finest works will be featured, including the seascapes and cloud studies that made him famous, atmospheric forest landscapes, portraits of Napoléon III and his wife, French architecture, views of Paris, troops on field maneuvers, Giuseppe Garibaldi and the effects of revolution in Sicily, and powerful photographs from Le Gray’s final sojourn in Egypt.
The Getty exhibition was organized by Gordon Baldwin, associate curator in the Getty Museum’s department of photographs. About one third of the photographs in the California exhibition are from the Getty’s collection, with loaned works from 18 other collections.
"The work of Gustave Le Gray laid the groundwork for photographers of his era and ours, and we are proud to bring this exhibition to Los Angeles. It is a unique opportunity to introduce many rare photographs, never before published or exhibited, to a broader public," said Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the Getty Museum.
Le Gray: Artist, Inventor, Teacher, Adventurer
Le Gray lived a colorful life and his work reflects his experiences. The only child of a prosperous business owner, Le Gray joined the studio of painter Paul Delaroche in 1842, after a brief law apprenticeship. He followed his teacher to Rome and while continuing to study painting, began to investigate photography and married his landlady’s beautiful daughter. When he returned to Paris in 1847, he started making daguerreotypes and set up a workshop that became an informal academy for many would-be photographers. His skills in chemistry and a penchant for experimentation led to his invention of two negative processes—a wax-coated paper negative and a collodion on glass plate negative. He also published four editions of a treatise on photography.
Le Gray reached the height of his success during the 1850s, beginning with a government commission to document French architectural monuments, and independent expeditions to the Fontainebleau forest to photograph landscapes. He later launched a portrait studio in Paris, which indebted him to backers. In 1857, he was commissioned to document the French army’s summer training camp at Châlons, yet was continually drawn to photograph the Normandy and Mediterranean coasts. By 1859, Le Gray’s inattention and, perhaps, his distaste for studio portraiture brought his business to the brink of bankruptcy. During this time, he turned to making photographs of Paris that were readily saleable.
Possibly to escape his financial woes, in 1860 Le Gray accepted a proposal to accompany the famous novelist Alexander Dumas on a luxurious Mediterranean yacht cruise that Le Gray would photograph and Dumas describe. When they arrived in Sicily during Garibaldi’s liberation of the island, the Italian leader requested photographs that would publicize his exploits. Le Gray’s striking scenes of the damaged city of Palermo were published in Paris. The voyage terminated when Dumas decided to run guns for the revolution and abandoned Le Gray on the island of Malta. Le Gray made his way, via Lebanon, to Egypt where, as drawing master for the ruling khedive’s sons, he accompanied the princes on a voyage up the Nile. The photographs of ancient temples he made then are among his most distinguished. Le Gray spent the last 23 years of his life in Egypt, and never returned to France. He died in Cairo in 1884 just before his 64th birthday.
Associate Curator Baldwin said, "Le Gray defined many of the possibilities of the medium and helped to establish photography as a fine art. His career and many achievements are remarkable and still stand as landmarks in the history of photography."
Exhibition Overview: From France to Sicily and Egypt
Portraiture and the Studio, the exhibition’s opening gallery, features Le Gray’s portraits of Napoléon III and the empress Eugénie, an Italian street musician, and close friends and pupils Henri Le Secq and Count Olympe Aguado. Two of only five known Le Gray photographs of nudes will also be on view, along with rare surviving daguerreotypes.
The second gallery includes work from the Mission Héliographique, 1851 and The Forest of Fontainebleau, 1852. The first section is devoted to photographs from a governmental survey of medieval and Renaissance French architecture. He and his former student Mestral were two of six artists selected to carry out the project. Also on display here is a new Getty acquisition, Factory at Terre Noire (between 1851 and 1855), a rare image of early industrialization, which shows a factory amidst clouds of smoke and denuded hillsides.
Le Gray’s forest photographs were taken in Fontainebleau, a popular weekend excursion area near Paris. Drawing on his training as a painter, he produced photographs reminiscent of the paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot as well as those from the Barbizon school of artists. Two works on view, Study of a Tree in a Clearing and Study of Tree Trunks (both 1855–57), were recently discovered at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and can be seen at the Getty for the first time in the United States.
The Camp at Châlons, 1857 and Seascapes, 1856, 1857 comprise the third gallery and highlight both Le Gray’s photographs of a military training camp and studies of breaking waves and clouds. Le Gray’s commission to document the camp led to works like Cavalry Maneuvers, October 3, Camp at Châlons (1857), which offers an oddly romantic vision of men practicing for war. The gallery also includes seascapes that are both expressive and technically remarkable. The Great Wave, Sète (1857), for example, is a celebrated picture that he printed from two negatives to equally capture both the sky and the water, an extraordinary achievement at the time.
The final gallery encompasses Paris, 1859; Sicily, 1860; Lebanon, 1861; and Egypt, 1862–1884, and showcases Le Gray’s later photographs. From Paris, there are views of monuments, bridges, and buildings such as the Mollien Pavilion, the Louvre (1859) and the Panthéon, Paris (1859). From Sicily, there is an outstanding portrait of Garibaldi and dramatic scenes of destruction. In Lebanon, he photographed the ruins of Baalbek, and in Egypt he made masterful, expansive studies of the ancient monuments along the Nile including Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amun, Karnak (1867).
Gustave Le Gray
French, Fontainebleau, 1849
Salt print, from a waxed calotype negative
7 13/16 x 10 3/8 in.