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
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.