Of Spirit & Form: The Monuments of France in Photographs
by Édouard Baldus and Médéric Mieusement

Sheldon Art Galleries - Bernoudy Gallery of Architecture and
the Gallery of Photography

September 29, 2006 - January 6, 2007

Essay by David R. Hanlon, Curator of Sheldon Exhibit

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As Europe began to be transformed by technological growth as well as scientific inquiry at the beginning of the nineteenth century the careful examination and cataloging of a wide range of material and objects grew in importance. Although French scholars and explorers began to record and preserve objects of aesthetic interest from the period after the revolution, specialized attention was not given in earnest to taking inventory of the range of architecture in France until 1837 when the Commission des Monuments Historiques was established. As a body comprised of historians, architects, artists and archaeologists, the Commission collected information about notable structures throughout the country and evaluated their condition and importance from an artistic and historical point of view. They then sought to restore the monuments that represented the best examples of a certain building style or epoch, reflecting nationalistic pride in the country's civilization in the process.

Although careful measured drawings would remain a foundation to the Commission's work, the development of photography certainly aided their collecting and recording activities. In 1851 five artists, utilizing the recently-introduced waxed paper negative process, were sent to four regions of France to record relevant ancient and medieval structures. One of the members of this mission héliographique was Édouard-Denis Baldus (1813-1889), who was assigned to photograph fifty-one monuments in the central and southern areas of Burgundy, the Dauphiné and Provence. Baldus had begun his artistic career as a painter, moving from his native Prussia to Paris in the late 1830s, but had initiated photographic activity with the calotype process by 1849. In 1852 he received additional funding to photograph Parisian monuments and views in the Midi for the Ministry of the Interior and published a treatise on his method of creating gelatin-treated paper negatives.

Édouard Baldus began an important photographic project documenting the construction and restoration of the Louvre in 1855, and until 1860 he worked in coordination with the chief architect, Hector Lefuel, to provide a visual record of the hundreds of sculptural and ornamental works being completed as well as creating grand studies of facades and pavilions. Baldus continued to photograph periodically at the site until the mid-1860s, for both the government and for himself, adding to the more than two thousand negatives he had already created. During this period, he also received commissions to photograph architecture and views seen along new railroad lines extending north and south of Paris and in 1856 traveled to regions in southern France to record the flooding of the Rhône for the government.

As a founding member of the Société Héliographique in 1851 and a participant in the Société Française de Photographie from 1857, Édouard Baldus displayed his photographs widely in European exhibitions between 1854 and the early 1870s and won numerous awards. A master in the production of salt prints, albumenized salt prints, albumen prints and his own heliogravure method, he also created successful combination prints and occasionally retouched his negatives with pencil and ink. His image of the facade of the cathedral in Lyon is one such example of retouching, where the upper stories of the building on the left edge of the print were inked over on the negative to show the church front with fewer visual constraints. Baldus’s formal and consistently descriptive large photographs set a standard for the use of the medium during the Second Empire and were prized by architects and historians through the rest of the century as excellent elements for study and reference.

Upon this foundation, established during the 1850s, developed another generation of photographers who desired to offer their skills in the cause of documenting and interpreting French architecture. Among the most important of this group, although often overlooked, was Séraphin Médéric Mieusement (1840-1905). Mieusement began his photographic career in 1859 working with the architect Jacques Félix Duban in the restoration of the château in Blois and entered partnerships with several photographers in the town before establishing his own studio in 1864. His many years of work with Duban, and other projects in the Loire valley, were positive experiences that led Mieusement to offer his services to the Minister of Public Instruction and the director of Beaux-Arts in 1872 to photograph more widely the historic monuments of France. After several years, the Commission des Monuments Historiques decided to reinitiate a collection of photographs to accompany their sets of drawings, and in 1876 hired Mieusement to begin the process of recording. By the end of 1883 the photographer had created nearly two thousand negatives to aid the government’s building restoration projects throughout the country and continued to supply images from every region of France until the end of the century.

Médéric Mieusement had an understanding and respect for the skill and ideas presented in the artistic work of sculpture and architecture from earlier ages but noted “it is necessary to have the holy fire in order to travel with a hundred and twenty kilograms of luggage for days on end.” After returning from his long excursions, he would then find it necessary to discuss the price of selling his negatives and accompanying prints. Mieusement requested, in a letter to the director of Beaux-Arts, twenty francs for each negative, “but the first on every building would be set at a rate of forty francs, because of the numerous allowances to be obtained from individuals, for the benefit of a window or a terrace to allow the taking the building in the best possible conditions,” or for the permission “to set sometimes on the roof of a neighboring monument, sometimes in a gutter, and often prepare a portable scaffolding on the public way.”

Although Mieusement documented components of religious architecture throughout most of the twenty-five years he provided images for the French government, in April 1881 he was hired by the Ministry of Religion to specifically photograph a large group of cathedrals and churches under the direction of diocesan architects. One of the most distinctive stylistic variations Mieusement would often incorporate into his church interior studies is the random placement of chairs throughout the nave, some of which would then be moved midway through the exposure. Many architectural photographers of the time chose to remove all of the portable elements from the interior area within the frame to allow a view of the most basic architectural components. Mieusement, however, seems more interested in providing some visual fill for the space and, perhaps more importantly, provide a reminder of the many craftsmen required to create the structure and whose spirits is still reside in the work.

Médéric Mieusement was known as a charming conversationalist, a man of great heart and intelligence, and a conscientious artist. In 1879 he helped found the Société d’Excursions Artistiques group in his hometown of Blois and remained its president until his death. He continued as a photographer in the service of the Commission des Monuments Historiques and the Ministry of Religion even after his son-in-law, Paul Robert (c. 1866-1898), took control of his establishment about 1891. In 1893 Mieusement traveled to Algeria to photograph Roman and Islamic monuments and about the same time produced a series of views of the Nouvelle Major in Marseille, the modern work of Léon Vaudoyer and Henry Espérandieu, just before its completion.

The architectural critic Russell Sturgis (1836-1909) acquired nearly six hundred photographic prints created by Mieusement after they became available for purchase in 1884, many of which contain the Monuments Historiques seal along with the artist’s blindstamp. These images, like those of Édouard Baldus, provided elements of reference for artists, historians and architects, but also effectively fused the descriptive characteristics of the medium of photography with its aesthetic possibilities.

- David R. Hanlon, Curator of Sheldon Exhibit

1 quoted in Sylvie Cohen, “On Mieusement” in Mieusement, Cathedrals de France: photographies du XIXe siecle,
(Paris, 1988), p. 3.

2 Correspondence of Mieusement preserved in the Archives du Patrimoine (Paris) along with about 7500 negatives (quoted in Sylvie Cohen, “On Mieusement” in Mieusement, Cathedrals de France: photographies du XIXe siecle, [Paris, 1988], p. 3).

3 Bruno Guignard, “Mieusement, ombres et Lumières,” in Regards Objectifs: Mieusement et Lesueur photographes à Blois, (Paris and Blois, 2000), pp. 32-33. This artistic society visited and studied regional sites several times a year and issued publications, occasionally illustrated with Mieusement photographs.

4 Jean-Jacques Poulet-Allamagny, Archives photographiques des monuments historiques, (Paris, 1980), p. 3.

5 In January 1884, the administration of the Monuments Historiques gave Mieusement the right to print from his material in the archives as well as negatives they had bought from him that represented the work of other photographers. This agreement, with the goal of “popularizing the finest examples of architecture and French sculpture,” was extended in February 1889 and allowed Mieusement the ability to sell his prints in several outlets in Paris, including the Musée de la Sculpture Comparée in the Trocadéro palace.