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Nadar Photo

Nadar - Biography and Legacy

French Photographer, Caricaturist, Writer, and Inventor

Born: April 8, 1820 - Paris, France
Died: March 21, 1910 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Modern Photography

Biography of Nadar


The first child of Thérèse Maillet and Victor Tournachon, Nadar was born with the name Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in Paris in 1820. Nadar's father was a printer and publisher from a prominent Lyonnais family of merchants and printers. An intelligent and liberal-minded man, Victor ran a moderately successful publishing company in Paris' Latin Quarter, publishing a range of titles in French, English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. Due to the political nature of certain volumes, Victor's firm was often watched by government censors.

Félix, as he was then known, attended school in Paris near his family home. In 1831, he was sent to a school in Versailles, where he won numerous college stipends. On the back of a scholarship, Félix attended the Collège Bourbon between 1833 and 1836 but he struggled with the pressures of balancing academic work and family obligations. By 1836, Félix, who had developed a keen interest in Romanticism and the literature of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Alfred de Vigny, had published his first piece of creative writing. However, his parents had recently returned to Lyons due to Victor's deteriorating health. Abandoned by his family, Félix became an unruly student and was expelled from the school and his lodgings.

Félix returned to Lyons after his father's death in the summer of 1837 and soon enrolled in medical school. He supplemented his academic work by writing theater criticism for the local press. Uninspired by this work, however, he left the provincial city of Lyons for Paris the following year. Once back in Paris, Félix resumed his medical studies, auditing courses at the Hôtel-Dieu and at Bicêtre in Gentilly. Yet despite his keen interest in the field of medicine, Félix failed to gain the necessary qualifications to continue with his studies and was ultimately forced to give up on that career. Without a profession or family support, Félix lapsed into the riotous antics of his earlier youth. It was during these years that he abandoned his given name (Félix Tournachon) for a new, less bourgeois, name: Nadar. Having created their own language as adolescents, Félix and his friends idly created new words and names by adding the letters "dar" to the end of said word. "Tournachondar" was thus shortened to Nadar.

Early Training and Work

Nadar, <i>Self-Portrait</i>, (c. 1855). Nadar as the young bohemian artist/writer.

In the decade between 1838 and 1848, Nadar lived a bohemian existence, moving frequently from one Parisian dwelling to the next. In order to support himself, he worked odd jobs that included drawing caricatures and writing articles and stories for small newspapers. He even found time to publish a novel. Nadar was starting to become well connected and among his circle of friends was writer and poet Henri Murger, whose La Vie de Bohème (Scenes of a Bohemian Life) (1851), detailed the frivolous exploits of the group (the life-style that Murger described were later popularized in Puccini's famous 1895 opera La Bohème).

Nadar also found employment as a pasteup artist designing page layouts for the Journal des dames et des modes until it ceased publication in 1839. Shortly thereafter - and still aged just nineteen - Nadar founded an ambitious new literary journal, Livre d'or (Golden Book), with painter and engraver Léon Noël. Though they only published a total of nine issues, the journal led to new friendships with Alexandre Dumas and the Romantic poets Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Due to the journal's precarious finances, Nadar was compelled to continue writing theater reviews for the independent press. The theaters he frequented during this period included both traditional theatrical productions and vaudeville acts that promoted a form of satirical comedy that thrived during the bourgeoise reign of Louis-Phillipe - known otherwise as the July Monarchy - between 1830-1848.

Nadar, <i>Gustave Courbet</i>, c. 1861. Nadar's portrait of his friend Courbet

Throughout the 1840s Nadar associated with an anomalous group of writers and artists. Among them, Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Courbet, became lifelong friends. Gregarious and open to the new wisdoms of modernism, Nadar's widening circle of friends functioned as a second family. As diverse as the group was, they were united in their belief in the freedom of the self and self-expression. However, Nadar's bohemian lifestyle, which meant he neglected to pay rent and other outstanding debts, landed him in debtor's prison in 1850. The experience changed him and later found its way into his writing. Nadar became increasingly drawn to political activism and began using his writing to express his views about the perceived injustices facing contemporary Parisian society. With a growing desire to communicate directly with the public, he began contributing written work and drawn caricatures to antiestablishment newspapers in 1846.

An astute social and political observer, Nadar's turn toward caricature was the logical progression from his interest in satirical writing. Subversive drawings of events and individuals from politics and culture had come to prominence in the years following the 1789 Revolution before becoming truly popularized in the 1830s by the caricaturist Honoré Daumier. The satirical press put caricatures front and center in their publications, and although their primary purpose was to illustrate written articles, the written text came to occupy considerably less space that the illustrations. Within a year Nadar had published some sixty caricatures of notable intellectuals and friends for the satirical publication Journal du dimanche. These eventually made their way into Charles Philipon's Le Charivari, the most famous satirical newspaper in Paris.

A revolution broke out in Paris in February 1848 (known indeed as the "February Revolution"), yet despite his radical tendencies, Nadar did not take to the streets. Instead, he wrote a play that acted out the issues brought about the Revolution - namely, the needs of the working classes and the right for unfettered public assembly. After the Revolution, however, Nadar and his younger brother, Adrien, signed up as volunteers when the new provisional government sent expeditionary forces to help liberate Poland in their fight against Russia. Once in Poland, they were arrested (the military exercise having failed) and forced to work in coal mines until they were freed some months later.

Nadar, <i>Charles Philipon</i>, c. 1855-58. Nadar's portrait of his friend and mentor Charles Philipon, whose satirical newspapers had supported Daumier and other prominent caricaturists in the 1830s.

Once safely returned to Paris, Nadar resumed his writing; publishing articles, and working as a copyeditor. He also continued to produce caricatures and comic strips lampooning politicians and leaders, and generally highlighting social ills, for La Revue comique and other satirical papers run by Charles Philipon. Between 1849 and 1862, Nadar established a veritable factory for the production of caricatures. Employing a team of artists, draftsmen, and assistants, Nadar's studio supplied hundreds of drawings that were translated into prints (by wood or lithography), then printed in satirical newspapers (Le Journal pour rire, Petit Journal pour rire, and Journal amusant) and small books or pamphlets. Unfortunately, Nadar was not the best draftsman or businessman and his studio faltered. Nevertheless, the assembly-line mindset proved to be excellent preparation for his foray into photographic portraiture.

Nadar's tendency toward political satire and caricature was curtailed to some degree by the censorship imposed under the newly formed Second Empire, which replaced the republic in 1851. His work shifted from overtly political in tone to caricatures of social customs, the salons and Parisian celebrities. In 1852 he produced the satirical work Lanterne Magique (Magic Lantern), which sought to illuminate prominent literary figures through caricature and accompanying texts with pithy anecdotes. The following year, seeking to build on this success, he began a grandiose large-scale work, called Panthéon Nadar (Nadar's Pantheon), that included some 250 caricatures of prominent Parisian authors. The project proved time-consuming, and while it proved a critical success, it did not help Nadar's dire financial situation. Indeed, Nadar was forced by circumstance to move in with his mother (and her numerous family pets) and his brother (Adrien) to a new apartment in 1853.

Mature Period

Though still a prolific caricaturist, a friend suggested to Nadar that he, with the help of Adrien, open a photographic studio in Paris. Photography, still in its infancy in the early 1850s, was proving to be a lucrative business opportunity for those entrepreneurial individuals willing to invest in the new technological medium. Initially, Nadar did not pursue photography as a practice, however, though he did recognize the financial possibilities of opening a portrait studio. He rather convinced Adrien, himself a struggling portrait painter, to take photography lessons with painter-cum-photographer Gustave Le Gray. With the financial backing of his friend (and banker) Louis Le Prévost, Adrien set up a photography studio in the heart of Paris at 11 boulevard des Capucines. Convinced of his own abilities and the viability of the studio, Adrien told Nadar that he could run the studio on his own.

Nevertheless, given his interest in caricature, and his drive to capture the personality of his subjects, portrait photography held many appeals for Nadar. He learned the collodion process from his friend Camille d'Arnaud, an artist and former newspaper editor, who had recently begun making portrait photographs. Nadar quickly mastered the process and began to photograph his family and friends in the garden of his mother's apartment.

Nadar with his wife Ernestine and son Paul, c. 1860.

In 1854, the year that Nadar took up photography as a profession, he was married in a small ceremony to Ernestine Lefèvre. The same year saw the long-awaited arrival of his large illustration titled Pantheon, which, despite wide acclaim, was quickly embroiled in scandal. A sitter claimed that Nadar had included his caricature without the necessary written authorization with the result that sales of the Pantheon was prohibited in October 1854. Having given up on the Pantheon project altogether, Nadar accepted an invitation from his brother to help with his now failing photography studio. After several months the studio was functioning normally and Adrien again asked his brother to step aside in January of 1855.

Nadar, who had contributed to the purchase a new camera, and arranged for his well-known friends to attend the studio for sittings - and had even managed to secure a spot for the studio at the Exposition Universalle - felt that his interventions had rescued the studio. His efforts created confusion in the public's perception of the studio and as to who was running it. Adrien had also begun signing his photographs "Nadar jeune" (Nadar the younger). Nadar insisted that Adrien repay the money and cease using his name, but his brother flatly refused. Not only that, Adrien moved into a larger studio called "Tournachon Nadar and Company" with the assistance of two financial backers. An aggrieved Nadar subsequently moved his base of operations to his first floor apartment on rue Saint-Lazare. He continued portrait sittings for his friends and acquaintances, including Baudelaire and other modernists. Soon after, in February 1856, Nadar and Ernestine had a son, Paul Nadar.

Nadar was pushed to new levels of activity during these years, adding photographic portraiture to his role as writer and caricaturist. In order to prove himself as a legitimate photographer, Nadar joined the Société Française de Photographie, presenting his portraits in their annual exhibitions in 1856, 1857 and 1859. He also took steps to have his photographs discussed in the press and to have his name inserted in conversations about the status of the medium as a modern art form.

Atelier Nadar, 35 Boulevard des Capucines, 1860. Nadar's monumental, attention grabbing signature featured prominently on the façade of his four-story studio on the popular Parisian Boulevard des Capucines.

In December 1857, Nadar (with the backing of the French judiciary) gained exclusive rights to the name Nadar; winning a suit against his younger brother and being officially declared "the only, the true Nadar." Adrien tried to appeal the decision, but to no avail, and with the loss of the name he was quickly bankrupted. Despite their problems, and their fight over the Nadar name, the elder brother purchased the contents of Adrien's studio, including the cameras and equipment that he had helped to acquire just a few years earlier. Nadar was now determined to make photographic portraiture his chief means of income and duly purchased the grand building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines that had been vacated by the pioneering photographer, Gustave Le Gray. Nadar was in fact warned off the venture as the building commanded astronomical rent and had been left in a state of disrepair. Undeterred, and already in significant debt, Nadar refurbished the studio which opened in September 1861. Though a creative triumph, the studio never succeeded as a commercial venture and Nadar remained in debt.

Late Period

From the late 1850s, Nadar photographed prominent artists, actors, writers, and politicians in his lavish new studio, conspicuously located on one of Paris's busiest thoroughfares. Nadar photographed a veritable who's-who of Parisian society: Eugène Delacroix, George Sand, Gustave Courbet, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Edouard Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Emile Zola, and Jules Verne, among others. Not only did he photograph the burgeoning Parisian set, he sold photographs of his famous sitters to the public at large. Anyone who could afford to have their portrait made might also be able to purchase a small photo postcard (a carte-de-visite) of an artist or writer they admired. It was the birth of celebrity culture, a new phenomenon made possible by the reproducible medium of photography, and Nadar was quick to capitalize.

By the end of the 1850s the appeal of portraiture was no longer enough to satisfy Nadar's creativity. This realization, coupled with the death in 1862 of his longtime friend and mentor Charles Philipon, effected his decision to give up his connection to satirical newspapers altogether. During this later period, his interest in photography dovetailed with an interest in human flight and experimentations with new technological and scientific advancements.

As part of his mission to liberate the camera from the studio, and enthused with the possibilities for electric light, Nadar undertook photographic expeditions into the Paris catacombs. Nadar had spotted a commercial opportunity (by selling photographic reproductions) to capitalize on the Parisians' macabre fascination with the ossuaries hidden in the vast underground network. He used his improvised electric lamps to illuminate the city's dark vaporous caverns, producing a portfolio that was unprecedented for its time (Nadar's catacomb photographs were accompanied by a written piece in the 1867 Paris-Guide, published in conjunction with the Exposition Universelle).

Honoré Daumier, <i>Nadar Elevating Photography to an Art</i>, c. 1862. In this lithograph Daumier depicts Nadar posed precariously in the gondola of his balloon with large format camera and hat flying.

In addition to his interest in subterranean Paris, Nadar explored the potential for shooting from above ground. Indeed, he grew increasingly interested in human flight and the photographic possibilities of shooting from a hot air balloon. Nadar was so convinced by the benefits of airborne photography - believing that it could be used for such purposes as mapmaking, surveying, and surveillance - he took out a patent for aerial photography in 1858. However, the necessity of preparing glass photographic plates in a moving balloon proved almost impossible, particularly when the gases escaped the balloon and altered the chemical composition of his silver baths. Nevertheless, Nadar overcame some of those challenges when he created the first aerial photographs of Paris in 1858; an event later immortalized by his friend Honoré Daumier in a lithograph entitled Nadar Elevating Photography to an Art (c. 1862).

Nadar, Aerial view of Paris, 1868. A modern print from the original negative, these images are among the few surviving aerial views Nadar made over Paris. This view shows the grand boulevards leading to the Arc de Triomphe in the center of Paris.

Nadar's interest in "aerial navigation by heavier than air machines" ultimately led him to begin construction in 1863 on the world's largest hot air balloon, Le Géant (The Giant). It stood almost 200 feet high with a wicker gondola the size of a small cottage. A traveling studio of sorts, it was furnished with a darkroom, a seating area, a lavatory, and even a billiard table. Accompanied by a military band and enormous crowds, the balloon was launched to great fanfare. The maiden flight of Le Géant was not the grand voyage across Europe it promised to be. Technical difficulties had forced its landing just 25 miles outside of Paris. Subsequent voyages were similarly plagued with unforeseen problems, culminating, finally, in a crash in which the vessel was destroyed.

Le Géant preparing to take off, Champ-de-Mars, 1863. In this photograph, Nadar's Le Géant, the world's largest hot air balloon and traveling studio, can be seen looming over gathered crowds just prior to its maiden voyage in 1863.

Le Géant a financial and technical failure, quickly swallowing up whatever profits the photography studio brought in. However, his work on Le Géant spurred him to establish a newspaper called L'Aéronaute in preparation for his first flight, and Nadar later wrote two books on his experiences with flying machines, Mémoires du Géant (1864) and Le Droit au vol (1865). While it was not the financial boon he was hoping for, the publications did succeed in opening the public's eyes to the possibilities for air travel.

In the early 1870s, his studio had become a meeting place for many disillusioned artists and writers frustrated with the current political and cultural establishment. Among the paintings included in the exhibition was Claude Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873), which was painted from the window on the second floor of Nadar's studio. That same year, Nadar retired to a house in the forest of Sénart, leaving his son Paul to run the photography studio. A year later, the Impressionists held their first public exhibition on the second floor of Nadar's studio on the bustling Boulevard des Capucines on April 15, 1874. In his final years Nadar wrote countless essays, books, and articles recounting his experiences and his friendships with many of the important personalities of the day. These writings culminated in his 1900 autobiography Quand j'étais photographe (When I was a Photographer). He died in 1910 at the age of 89.

The Legacy of Nadar

Félix Nadar in the Gondola of a Balloon, 1865. Nadar was so fascinated with hot air balloons by the mid-1860s that he had his studio fitted with a replica, complete with wicker gondola and atmospheric backdrop.

Nadar was a flamboyant figure who pursued an expansive set of interests (not all of them successful). He left his mark on nineteenth century Paris as (often at once) a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, writer and left-wing polemicist, scientist and even aeronaut. A romantic at heart - his early heroes included Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Delacroix - Nadar acquired an impressive roster of friends and clients - including Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire - most of who helped define his own legacy. His entrepreneurial spirit was evident in nearly every aspect of his professional life but his photographic portraits of the prominent artists, writers and intellectuals of nineteenth-century Paris proved to be era defining.

Indeed, Nadar proved a master at cultivating celebrity - for himself and for others - and it could be credibly argued that his industrialized approach to photographic portraiture, not to mention his drawn caricatures, gave birth to the phenomenon of modern celebrity culture. Yet in spite of his business savvy, Nadar was interested, above all, in using portraiture to reveal the inner character of his sitters. Based on mutual trust, and Nadar's infectious enthusiasm, he succeeded in creating a psychological connection with his subjects that was without precedent in the medium of photography at that time. As he later said, "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."

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Content compiled and written by Karen Barber

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Nadar Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Karen Barber
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 11 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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