The Barnes Foundation to Present Survey of Experimental Early Photography

Philadelphia—For its second survey of photography, the Barnes Foundation is presenting nearly 250 early photographs—most of which have never been exhibited before—created by British and French photographers between the 1840s and 1880s. Curated by Thom Collins, executive director and president of the Barnes, From Today, Painting Is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France is drawn from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg and spans the invention of the daguerreotype to photography on paper and beyond. The show is on view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery from February 24 through May 12, 2019.

From Today, Painting Is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal.

Following the production of the first photographs in the 1830s, and before the advent of Kodak’s point-and-shoot camera in 1888 and the industrialization of photography, artists experimented with photography, creating innovative processes and uniquely compelling representational tropes.

“When the influential French painter Paul Delaroche saw a photograph for the first time, he proclaimed, ‘From today, painting is dead!’ This sentiment captures the anxiety with which photography was greeted by artists, though it would be nearly 50 years before technology evolved enough to approximate the work Delaroche and his fellow painters were already doing,” says Collins. “This exhibition explores the very fertile period in the early history of photography, when the medium’s pioneers were grappling with the complex inheritance of official, state-sponsored visual culture.”

For the better part of the 19th century—before rebellious groups like the impressionists challenged the status quo—powerful fine arts academies in Paris and London governed the official style for painting and even guided what subjects artists should depict. Some themes were considered more important than others, based on their cultural significance and the skill required to render them. Moralizing historical subjects were generally the most valued; next came portraiture, then genre (or scenes of daily life), then landscape, and finally still life.

Photography developed amid this stringent artistic climate. Between 1840 and 1870, photographers of all stripes—both amateurs and an emergent class of professionals, makers of vernacular pictures and those aspiring to create fine art—experimented with the new medium, not only its mechanics and chemistry, but also its representational potentials. In doing so, they inevitably absorbed—and transformed—the well-established tropes of the dominant academic painting tradition.

From Today, Painting Is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France features over 60 photographers, including such masters as William Henry Fox Talbot—the scientist and inventor credited with developing the first photographic prints on paper; Félix Nadar, the great portraitist of Paris high society; Roger Fenton, the English painter turned celebrated photographer who achieved widespread recognition for his photographs of the Crimean War in 1855; Gustave Le Gray, the leader of 1850s French art photography; and Julia Margaret Cameron, whose literary and biblical-themed figure studies and captivating portraits were unprecedented in her time.

Exhibition highlights include:

  • Original calotypes from 1840 to 1845 by William Henry Fox Talbot, including still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and street scenes from both England and France.
  • The earliest war photographs, taken of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton, including his iconic Valley of the Shadow of Death as well as the 11-plate panorama of Sebastopol.
  • An 1844 daguerreotype of Jerusalem—one of the first of the city—by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.
  • A full-plate daguerreotype of the Fontaine des Innocents in Paris by Baron Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros from 1850.
  • Some of the earliest existing travel photographs of the Middle East, Southern Europe, Africa, India, Burma, Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand.
  • Portraits by Félix Nadar, Napoleonic Paris’s great portraitist and larger-than-life personality, with subjects ranging from literary legends—including an oversize 1885 deathbed portrait of Victor Hugo—to the first official Japanese delegation to France (1864). Also included are Nadar’s 1860s photographs of the Paris catacombs and sewers, which represent one of the first uses of artificial lighting in photography.
  • Pre-Raphaelite allegorical portraiture by Julia Margaret Cameron.
  • French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey’s 1880s motion studies of athletes, which prefigure the development of motion pictures, much like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies in the US.
  • Seascapes, landscapes, photographs of military maneuvers, and other works by Gustave Le Gray, the leader of the 1850s French movement of fine art photography. 

EXHIBITION ORGANIZATION:
All works are from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg. This exhibition was organized by the Barnes Foundation in association with art2art Circulating Exhibitions. The presentation at the Barnes Foundation is curated by Thom Collins, executive director and president of the Barnes.

This exhibition was produced as part of a new educational venture between the Barnes and the University of Pennsylvania led by Thom Collins and professor Aaron Levy, with curatorial contributions from students in the 2018 Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Seminar “Ars Moriendi: Life and Death in Early Photography.”

Auction Guide