JAIC 1985, Volume 24, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 92 to 103)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1985, Volume 24, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 92 to 103)


Mervyn Ruggles


THE INVENTION OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC camera was a development from the portable camera obscura. The experiments in producing images on a flat surface by Wedgwood, Davy, Ni�pce, Talbot and others are well documented. However, the first announcement of the daguerreotype was made on the inventor's behalf by F.D. Arago,1 a distinguished physicist and astronomer, at a meeting of the Acad�mie des Sciences in Paris on January 7, 1839. From then on the daguerreotype was launched like a rocket and knowledge of the process spread rapidly to many parts of the world within the next year.

A number of phases in the life of Daguerre had led up to this event. At the age of 27, Daguerre had a painting of his accepted for the Paris Salon of 1814. He subsequently became interested in painting dioramas, exhibiting his first one, 71 feet long by 15 feet high, in Paris in 1822 and a second diorama in London by 1824. As is well known, buildings were specially constructed in order to exhibit these huge paintings. Their display was accompanied by elaborate lighting to imitate sunrise, twilight and night effects. The public flocked to enjoy this new entertainment much as they do today at the motion picture theatres. The diorama symbolized the convergence of several important factors: a) the fascination for realism in things artistic which arose during the early part of the 19th century, b) the renewed interest in travel to distant lands, c) the gadgetry produced by the industrial revolution. These influences came to focus in the middle of the Victorian period when the Great London Exhibition, a world's fair, opened in 1851.

Daguerre's mirror-like images, devised partly by accident, could not have come at a more propitious moment. Daguerreotypes, plain, tinted and in stereo, were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and przes given for the best entries. In this competition, Matthew Brady, who later became the celebrated American Civil War photographer, was awarded a medal for one of his daguerreotypes.

Photographic studios sprang up everywhere. The public could acquire portraits of themselves and members of their families cheaply. People now accustomed to miniatures were delighted with the great detail and the realism that the daguerreotype gave them without great expense. Then, in 1851, Frederick Scott Archer published his invention of the collodion2 on glass process, bringing the popularity of the daguerreotype to an end by 1860.

Many professional artists advertised themselves as artist-photographers in order to get a share of the prosperity of this new wave. Artists like Eug�ne Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Edvard Munch and many others used photographs to compose paintings or to make direct copies; just as portraits of Abraham Lincoln were painted directly from photos as models, by Thomas Sully in 1864 and George Henry Story in 1866.3

In the early days of daguerreotype portraiture, Queen Victoria asked Alfred Chalon (1780–1860), the fashionable French miniature painter, whether he was not afraid that photography would ruin his profession. “Ah, non, Madam,” he replied, “photography cannot flatter!”4

Copyright � 1985 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works