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Felix Nadar

“As for the portrait, it is time to have done with the reproach that the photographer cannot convey so well as the painter the intimate and artistic feeling of his sitter. The photograph takes the law into its own hands. Psychological insight is not reserved for painters alone and they know it.”  — Felix Nadar

Nadar was one of the most creative, original and daring artists and entrepreneurs of the 19th century. When he was a young man, his socialist sympathies caused him to be placed under police surveillance. He fought duels when honor demanded, and was likely befriended with more writers and artists than anyone else at the time. Nadar nursed the dying Charles Baudelaire, who called him "the most astonishing expression of vitality," and hosted the Impressionists' first exhibition on his premises.

Nadar supported the old and impoverished Honoré Daumier by helping to organize a show of his works. It was Daumier who made the famous caricature of the aviation pioneer in his balloon, "raising photography to the altitude of art" (1862). Nadar operated a private balloon called "Le Géant" (The Giant), and in face of the impending French defeat by the Prussians in 1870 he and his friends established a "Company of Military Balloon Aviators" to conduct aerial reconnaissance.

After taking up photography in 1854, not a year passed before Nadar produced now legendary photographs: the experiments with electrophysiological facial distortions conducted by Dr. Duchenne de Boulogne (with Nadar's brother, Adrien Tournachon, as co-photographer), and portraits of the great mime Charles Debureau, who reinterpreted the Commedia dell'Arte role of Pierrot. Nadar had hired Debureau for a series of "expressive heads" to promote his new studio. These pictures by the brothers—collectively billed as "Nadar jeune"— won a First Class medal at the 1855 Paris World's Fair. Yet sadly a quarrel over rights ensued between Félix and Adrien that would occupy the courts for a long time.

The name Nadar stood above all for high quality portraiture. His Panthéon Nadar immortalized the intellectual greats of the day: artists such as Doré, Daumier, Delacroix, Millet, Daubigny, Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Rodin; authors such as George Sand, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Charles Baudelaire, Dumas, and Hugo; and composers such as Hector Berlioz, Rossini, Offenbach, and Verdi. Many of these portraits have since become canonical records of their sitters' appearance. The straightforward yet monumental style of the portraits, the way they bring out the sitters' intellect and charisma, not to mention humor, and underplay their attire and surroundings, made Nadar famous. These were portraits of artists by an artist.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan


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