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Nadar | The photographer of the Impressionists and Romantics

George Sand🎨 (French Romantic writer, 1804-1876) by Nadar, 1864

Ringmaster, publicist, and performer in a highly theatrical life, the legendary Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910) wore many hats - those of journalist, bohemian, left-wing agitator, playwright, caricaturist, and aeronaut.
He had success in all these roles, but what he did best was collect a pantheon of friends whom he honored with his generous and perceptive photographic portraits.
Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1820, the son of a liberal publisher, Nadar grew up in Paris in the heady ferment of Romanticism.
Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Delacroix were his early heroes; Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire his maturing friends. Nadar’s imagination, wit, and spontaneity, like his passion for the colorful, unconventional, and free, were tendencies shared with both generations of Romantic writers and artists.

Felix Nadar, 1865

That these qualities are also natural to youth is appropriate, for the epoch was modernity’s first act, a time when self-expression was a principled achievement and a serious artist could construct an identity on an adolescent nickname blazoned like a banner.
Early in 1854, a banker friend proposed backing Nadar in a portrait photography business. Photography was just then perceived to be a lucrative affair; the new collodion-on-glass negatives produced portraits as sharp as daguerreotypes, but more easily and in multiple copies. Overcommitted to his activities as a caricaturist, Nadar persuaded his younger brother Adrien Tournachon - a lackluster portrait painter frequently on his dole - to be the principal operator. After paying for his photography lessons with Gustave Le Gray, Nadar was brushed off by Adrien, who opened the studio alone.

Caricature of Alexandre Dumas (French Romantic writer, 1802-1870) by Nadar
Alexandre Dumas (French Romantic writer, 1802-1870) by Nadar

Pushing Adrien into photography, however, had piqued Nadar’s own interest in the camera - initially, perhaps, as a rapid sketching tool for caricatures.
He installed a darkroom in his garden apartment at 113 rue Saint-Lazare, and tried out the new technique on friends who came to visit. Meanwhile, Adrien, lax and disorganized, was floundering.

In September 1854, he convinced Nadar, recently married and over his ears in debt, to help save his business on the boulevard.
  • I gave it everything I could,” Nadar wrote, “work, money [6,000 francs of his wife’s dowry], personal relations, and my pseudonyum, which followed me”.
Alphonse Daudet (French writer, 1840-1897) by Nadar

Nadar transformed Adrien’s languishing studio overnight, and his bustling activity dominated the business until January 16, 1855, when the brothers quarreled and split. Adrien insisted on continuing to call himself Nadar jeune (Nadar the Younger), while Nadar maintained that his name, which he had made famous, was his alone to use.
After more than a year of vain negotiations to reclaim exclusive rights to his moniker, Nadar finally took Adrien to court.
The suit and the rivalry it cloaked dragged on for three years, until 1859, during which time Nadar made his finest portraits, always working at home in a relaxed and personal manner, and exclusively with friends or celebrities - of his aesthetic and political persuasion, of course - whom he invited to the rue Saint-Lazare studio.
The sympathetic quality of Nadar’s attention, his seductive energy, his jokes and stories, all served his photography, which he understood to be a private theater of personality, a stage for intimate, extemporaneous, collaborative performances between himself and his trusted companions.

Auguste Préault (French Romantic sculptor, 1808-1879) Paris, 1854 by Nadar

In preparing his suit against his brother, Nadar explained why he was a master of this subtle intuitive art.
  • What can [not] be learned … is the moral intelligence of your subject; it’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model, makes you size him up, grasp his habits and ideas in accordance with his character, and allows you to render, not an indifferent plastic reproduction that could be made by the lowliest laboratory worker, commonplace and accidental, but the resemblance that is most familiar and most favorable, the intimate resemblance. It’s the psychological side of photography - the word doesn’t seem overly ambitious to me”.
Meanwhile, Adrien blustered and faltered. When Nadar won the last appeal in June 1859, his younger brother was no longer even the semblance of a threat. Always unstable, but now demoralized and bankrupt as well, Adrien lived on Nadar’s charity and in his shadow for the rest of his fruitless life.

Auguste Rodin🎨 (French sculptor, 1840-1917) by Nadar, 1893
Auguste Rodin🎨 (French sculptor, 1840-1917) by Nadar, 1900

In 1860, Nadar moved from his cozy garden apartment and studio to a huge atelier in the building his friends Gustave Le Gray and the Bisson brothers had just vacated at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. The rent was astronomical and the lavish reconstruction ruinous, but Nadar’s expenditures bought the triumph of his name - a gigantic signature scrawled on the glass facade of his palace and in the consciousness of the public.
Now the preeminent portrait emporium in Paris, Nadar’s atelier attracted the bourgeois clientele of the boulevard.
But with rare exceptions, as when George Sand🎨 or Sarah Bernhardt🎨 came for a sitting, Nadar left the operation to the staff, and eventually to his son Paul. He had already portrayed what was notable in his epoch and now shifted to a pursuit of the future.
He photographed underground with artificial light, encouraged the development of aerial navigation, and flew the biggest balloon ever built, the Géant.
After more or less retiring in 1873, and until his death in 1910, Nadar recycled his continuing passions and past escapades in several volumes of picturesque memoirs. | © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Malcolm Daniel - Department of Photographs

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot🎨 (French Realist painter, 1796-1875) by Nadar
Charles Baudelaire (French poet, 1821-1867) by Nadar, 1855
Charles Baudelaire (French poet, 1821-1867) by Nadar, 1855
Charles Baudelaire (French poet, 1821-1867) by Nadar, 1855
Charles Baudelaire (French poet, 1821-1867) by Nadar
Jean-Louis-Charles Garnier (French architect, 1825-1898) by Nadar
Claude-Achille Debussy🎨 (French Impressionist composer, 1862-1918) by Nadar, 1908
Claude-Oscar Monet🎨 (French Impressionist painter, 1840-1926) by Nadar, 1887
Claude-Oscar Monet🎨 (French Impressionist painter, 1840-1926) by Nadar, 1887
Claude-Oscar Monet🎨 (French Impressionist painter, 1840-1926) by Nadar, 1899
Claude-Oscar Monet🎨 (French Impressionist painter, 1840-1926) by Nadar, 1899
Cléo de Mérode (French dancer of the Belle Époque, 1875-1966) by Nadar
Édouard Manet🎨 (French Realist/Impressionist painter, 1832-1883) Paris, 1864 by Nadar
Édouard Manet🎨 (French Realist/Impressionist painter, 1832-1883) by Nadar
Émile Zola (French novelist, 1840-1902) by Nadar, 1895
Ernest Quost🎨 (French Impressionist painter, 1842-1931) by Nadar
Eugène Delacroix🎨 (French Romantic painter, 1798-1863) by Nadar
Filippo Palizzi🎨 (Italian painter, 1818-1899) by Nadar
Franz Liszt🎨 (Hungarian composer, 1811-1886) by Nadar, 1886
Franz Liszt (Hungarian composer, 1811-1886) by Nadar
George Sand (French Romantic writer, 1804-1876) by Nadar
George Sand (French Romantic writer, 1804-1876) by Nadar
George Sand (French Romantic writer, 1804-1876) by Nadar
Gioacchino Rossini (Italian Romantic composer, 1792-1868) by Nadar
Gioacchino Rossini (Italian Romantic composer, 1792-1868) by Nadar
Gustave Courbet🎨 (French Realist painter, 1819-1877) by Nadar, Paris, 1866
Gustave Courbet (French Realist painter, 1819-1877) by Nadar
Hector Berlioz (French Romantic composer, 1803-1869) by Nadar, 1857
Hector Berlioz (French Romantic composer, 1803-1869) by Nadar, 1860
Honoré Daumier🎨 (French painter, 1808-1879) by Nadar
Honoré Daumier (French painter, 1808-1879) by Nadar, Paris, 1857
Jacques Offenbach (German-French composer, 1819-1880) Paris, 1875 by Nadar
Camille Corot🎨 (French Realist painter, 1796-1875) Paris, 1857 by Nadar
Jean-Francois Millet🎨 (French Realist painter, 1814-1875) by Nadar, 1857
Jean-Léon Gérôme🎨 (French Academic painter and sculptor, 1824-1904) by Nadar
Jules Gabriel Verne (French novelist, 1828-1905) by Nadar
Louis Charles Auguste Couder (French Romantic painter, 1789-1873) by Nadar, 1856
Louis Pasteur (French biologist, microbiologist and chemist, 1822-1895) by Nadar
Louis Pasteur (French biologist, microbiologist and chemist, 1822-1895) by Nadar
Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon] Self-portrait, 1855 | The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collection
Claude Monet (French Impressionist painter, 1840-1926) by Nadar

Nadar ‹nadàar› - Pseudonimo del fotografo, caricaturista, aeronauta e scrittore Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (Parigi 1820 - ivi 1910).
Fondatore (1849) della Revue comique, autore di racconti e di memorie, ha lasciato nel Panthéon Nadar (1854) una vera e propria galleria delle celebrità del tempo. Si dedicò anche alla fotografia e fu amico di molti artisti, ad alcuni dei quali fece ritratti penetrantissimi - Ch. Baudelaire, H. de Balzac, S. Bernhardt, ecc.;
Nel 1874, mise i suoi studî a disposizione dei futuri impressionisti, che vi organizzarono la prima mostra della "Società anonima degli artisti pittori, scultori e incisori".
Compì in aerostato numerose ascensioni nel cielo di Parigi e partecipò, a capo di una compagnia di aerostieri, alla difesa della capitale durante la guerra franco-prussiana (1870-71). © Treccani

Paul Madeline🎨 (Post-impressionist painter, 1863-1920) by Nadar
Pierrot the photographer - Charles Deburau (French mime, 1829-1873) by Nadar | Musée d'Orsay
Sarah Bernhardt (French actress, 1844-1923) by Nadar, 1864

Intellettuale, pittore, caricaturista e aeronauta, Nadar fu fra i primi a cogliere le straordinarie potenzialità della neonata arte fotografica e a favorirne lo sviluppo, diventandone così in breve tempo uno degli interpreti più sensibili e autorevoli.
Il campo nel quale Nadar raggiunse i risultati più significativi fu la ritrattistica, dove si distinse per le sue abilità compositive e per la compenetrazione psicologica con la quale si rapportava al soggetto, doti che lo equiparavano del tutto a un buon pittore.
Nadar, infatti, sapeva valutare e gestire il contesto nel quale si andava a scattare la foto, predisponendo con grande abilità la luce ambientale (sia questa naturale ed artificiale) e il modo con cui essa interagiva con i volumi.
  • «Non esiste la fotografia artistica. Nella fotografia esistono, come in tutte le cose, delle persone che sanno vedere e altre che non sanno nemmeno guardare» - Nadar.
Nadar, inoltre, si relazionava con i suoi soggetti con grande sensibilità: amava parlare con loro, così da farli sentire a proprio agio e da cogliere con maggiore facilità i loro stati d'animo.
Aveva una cura maniacale per i dettagli, e predisponeva vari accorgimenti mirati a far emergere l'interiorità più profonda della figura ritratta, descrivendo in modo sintetico e non analitico la loro personalità e le loro peculiarità.
La poetica di Nadar è particolarmente evidente nel ritratto di Sarah Bernhardt, una delle più grandi attrici teatrali del XIX secolo. | © Wikipedia

Sarah Bernhardt (French actress, 1844-1923) by Nadar, 1864
Sarah Bernhardt (French actress, 1844-1923) by Nadar
Théophile Gautier (French poet-dramatist-novelist, 1811-1872) Paris, 1855 by Nadar
Victor Hugo🎨 (French Romantic writer, 1802-1885) by Nadar
Ivan Sergeevič Turgenev (Russian writer, 1818-1883) by Nadar