A museum curator since she was 20, Dominique de Font-Réaulx came into her own surrounded by the world’s most celebrated works of art. Rembrandt, Cézanne, Ingres, Courbet – the glorious masters of canvas are her life’s work.
No doubt influenced by the compelling presence of these paintings, the Parisian-based curator and historian began exploring the effect on painters of a new medium that exploded onto the 1800s art scene: photography.
The result is a book that answers questions without closing doors.
In “Painting and Photography: 1839-1914” (Flammarion, February 2013), Font-Réaulx works through the complex relationship between 19th century painting and photography, a burgeoning art from. How did brush-to-canvas and pen-to-paper artists reconcile this newfangled form of making pictures?
“Up to relatively recent times, many art historians ignored—indeed, sometimes obfuscated – the place and role played by photography in the creative processes of many painters,” Font-Réaulx writes in the introduction.
The book explores photography’s beginning, which set off a domino effect of challenges felt by traditional painters.
It is impossible to enter a discussion on the relationship between these disciplines without running into Pop artist David Hockney’s controversial theory about art and photography. In a 2001 BBC television program and a book, both entitled “Secret Knowledge,” Hockney draws people into a tantalizing possibility – that Old Masters like Caravaggio and Vermeer used camera obscuras to project images onto canvases and essentially “trace” their subjects.
Instead of dismissing Hockney’s assertions as bogus or offensive, Font-Réaulx takes them into consideration. She agrees with his vision of photography as more than technology; she views it as an art from with roots far earlier than the 19th century.
With these arguments in mind, Font-Réaulx does not focus on differences or voids between the disciplines.
“I’ve been more interested in the way painters and photographers looked for recognition in the 19th century,” she explains.
The definitions of art and artist are constantly expanding, and Font-Réaulx embraces this evolution – she urges readers to interpret her book as a synthesis of her current studies only, leaving open the door to new books and further knowledge.
In addition to curating at the Louvre, Font-Réaulx is the curator at the Musée d’Orsay. She teaches at École du Louvre and the Institut de Sciences Politiques de Paris. Her work is a constant and powerful influence on her studies – always present, always an inspiration.
Not dissimilar from the tenants of art itself, Font-Réaulx seems to view the subject of art as fluid and far from exhausted. She presents her work believing it can move the conversation forward but knowing it isn’t the end of the discussion.
As she puts it: “The discipline is very much alive.”
What sparked your interest in exploring the relationship between photography and painting?
It’s quite a long story already. I’ve been working on the subject for the past 20 years. I did my thesis on Gustave Courbet and photography.
Your book pays much attention to capturing landscape with both painting and photography. Why did you choose the landscape as a means to analyze the relationship between these art mediums?
Landscape focuses on the links between the two fields as, per se, it relays on the reproduction of nature by itself. It was, as you know, what Daguerre promised in his first advertisement for his invention: in French, “la nature se reproduit seule dans la chambre noire” (“nature is reproduce only in a dark room”).
During the 19th century, landscape was a place for artistic revolution. Seen as one of the lowest “genres” (as stated by the French Fine Arts Academy in the 17th century) it stood around 1840 as one of the most appreciated themes by the public and by the critics. The academic creation of the “Prix de Rome du paysage historique” (1817), l’Ecole de Barbizon and then the young Impressionists showed how landscape was crucial to the evolution of painting.
Romantic theories placed the human being at the heart of the Creation and the artist at the heart of his creation. Thus, landscape was forged by the way it was observed by the artist himself. As Roland Barthes emphasized, artists placed a subjective frame before the landscape they were about to describe, paint or photograph. [The landscape] has been the genre in which the issue of realism was the strongest.
What different approaches and strategies do painters and photographers bring to bear in making pictures?
It’s quite difficult to answer such a question on a short basis. Approaches and strategies were as many as artists were. I’ve been more interested in the way painters and photographers looked for recognition in the 19th century.
How would you rate the evolution of photography since its inception, especially with the infusion of new technologies?
New technologies have completely changed practices and uses. Thus, they have offered to look differently at former photographs (all silvered processes). By placing them in the past, they have been allowing the history of photography to – at last – exist.
In the introduction to your book, you touch upon photography and painting’s relationship with other art forms, such as theater. Do you believe each art form operates by its own set of principles?
Of course. Still, 19th century artists were very much interested in all forms of art. Moreover, the first third of the century saw the renovation of both painting and theater and, of course, the invention of photography. All events are related. Daguerre was, as you know, very much appreciated for his theatrical decors. He succeeded in creating illusionist scenes that impressed the public. To achieve illusionism was one of his key concerns when he invented the daguerreotype.
David Hockney theorizes that 400 years before photography was invented, artists have been using simple cameras to capture realistic images on canvas. Is it necessary to overemphasize the dichotomy between mediums that could be so interchangeably connected?
Hockney is right when he emphasized that photography is, in a way, an old invention. As it has been stated before, technical devices behind the photographic invention were not complex: on one hand, an old optical device, the camera obscura, on the other hand, quite a chemical recipe. Up to 1875 through 1880, almost every photographer had his own recipe. If technical devices were ancient, the idea was new. The aspiration to realism was new to the 19th century.
Painting and photography have been quite close since. They both are subsequent to Alberti’s perspective. Despite this common artistic basis, many observers and critics still see photography as a technical device only. That was one of the reasons why I’ve been interested in trying to describe the links between the two fields. Hockney’s assertions (that also led Peter Galassi to his exhibition “Before Photography”) have been taken into account, of course!
Intricate preparation goes into some photographic works, from fabrics to lighting to the subtle expressions on a subject’s face. Is this forethought any different from that of a painter staging his or her scene?
Certainly, the photographer needs to create the scene before photographing it. The painter can rely on his imagination only. One of the debts of photography to theater relies on the scene completion. Rehearsal is needed. Of course, [this debt] is also the reason why photography leads to cinema.
Photography and painting are arguably indebted to each other. Considering the interchangeability of the mediums, is it necessary to compare them?
Yes. Comparing [painting and photography] allows you to understand them better and also to analyze the artistic creation of the 19th century, between desire of realism and the lure for imagination.
You describe photography as something latent that was “discovered” rather than invented. Do you think the same is true of all art forms?
Of course it is an invention. The term “discovery” has been used by Daguerre and François Arago themselves. It supported their will to acknowledge the invention as a scientific discovery, already there before Niépce’s and Daguerre’s works.
David Hockey makes a compelling argument that instead of photography coming to an end with the digital camera, Photoshop and the like, it is actually the beginning, because the artist’s hand is in the picture again. What do you make of this?
Always has been the case. Retouching, recreating and cheating prints and negatives was done during the first years of the invention [of photography]. Promoted as the paragon for accuracy, photography has been, ever since its creation, a way of reinventing reality.
What are the debts painting owes photography, and vice versa?
It needs a book to answer such a question! I hope mine gave you some clues about it.
You are currently a chief curator at the Musée de Louvre in Paris. How has curating such a vast and influential collection of work informed your research?
I’m director of the Musée Delacroix (depending on the Louvre). Of course being close to one of the largest collections of paintings has influenced me. I have been a museum curator since I was 20 years old, and all my works are linked to my profession.
Outside your field of work and study, what is something you enjoy?
Many things, I must say; reading, gardening, writing, lecturing and watching movies at first. I’m quite a contemplative person, despite my duties as director!