Nadar: the story of a photography pioneer

Last year the Bibliothèque nationale de France organised Les Nadar, un légende photographique, an exhibition on this family of photographers (accompanying catalogue: S950.b.201.5289 featuring Paul Nadar’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt on the cover). The most important of these was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, photography pioneer, freelance writer and caricaturist, known by his pseudonym, Nadar. In addition, his son Paul and his half-brother Adrien Tournachon were gifted photographers.

Caricature of F. Nadar in La lune, 1867, 2015.8.2833

Félix Nadar was born in 1820 into a family of printers and booksellers in Lyon. From a young age he was an admirer of Dumas, Hugo and Balzac. He started to study medicine in Lyon but once his father died in 1837, he had to quit and moved to Paris. There he started his career as writer and caricaturist, collaborating in some journals. He frequented the Parisian bohemian scene in the Latin Quarter; where he met important writers, such as Dumas (father), Balzac, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, George Sand, Alfred de Vigny, the Goncourt brothers… Nadar was part of “the water drinkers”, the bohemian circle of Henry Murguer. Félix was well connected and maintained his links with these friends later on.

Paris was an effervescent artistic and intellectual centre at the time. Many famous figures posed for the photographer – as well as those previously mentioned we have Eugène Delacroix, Jules Verne, Gustave Doré, Honoré Daumier, Franz Liszt, Rossini, Jacques Offenbach… 

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Regarding his work as a caricaturist, we can highlight the Pantheon Nadar, an ambitious project which aimed to create 1200 caricatures of contemporary intellectuals, writers, journalists and artists. His original idea was to gather all the portraits in four lithographs, but only one was completed in 1853. This challenging task was undertaken by a small team of collaborators, including Adrien. Félix was probably inspired by the Panthéon charivarique, a collection of caricatures by Benjamin Roubaud, published in Le Charivari (the first illustrated satirical newspaper) between 1833 and 1847. Cambridge University Library is participating in a project on 19th century French caricatures covered by a previous post.

In September 1854 Félix married Ernestine Constance Lefèbvre, who belonged to a wealthy Protestant family. In the same year he set up his first photographic studio in a large luxurious building on Boulevard des Capucines. Nadar was a proud republican, having a clientele of liberal professionals. In contrast, André Disdéri, his competitor, well-known for his patented carte de visite, was the photographer of the elite, working mainly with more conservative customers.

Félix’s half-brother, Adrien, was a bohemian painter and a gifted photographer, later somewhat eclipsed by his brother’s success. Both used Nadar as a pseudonym and worked in nearby studios, which proved to be problematic and eventually caused a legal dispute in 1856-57. As a result, Félix was the only one entitled to use the name Nadar in the future. Adrien had a brief career as a photographer (1853-1862) and was soon forgotten. His photographs were dispersed and often wrongly attributed to Félix.

Félix was a pioneer in experimental photography. For example, he took underground photos using artificial light around 1860, such as those of the catacombs. As he was an aeronautical enthusiast, he was the first person to take aerial photographs. In addition, Adrien had a particular interest in medical and animal photography, later also shared by Félix.

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Paul Nadar participated in the family business, but had a different approach to photography. Paul had an interest in the Opera-comique and was keen to take pictures of people from the performing arts, something already done by Adrien. Paul had a successful career and numbered among his clientele the high class of la Belle Époque.

The journalist and photographer Henri Tournier praised the artistic character of Nadar’s portraits, stating : « Parler des portraits, c’est parler de M. Nadar et de cette galerie contemporaine (…) ». Nadar succeeded in capturing the character of the sitters. For Tournier, they left in their portraits « leur originalité et comme une partie de leur âme ».

Manuel del Campo


Further reading

Bernard, Anne-Marie; Malécot, Claude. L’odyssée de Paul Nadar au Turkestan, 1890: photographies de Paul Nadar. Paris: Monum, 2007. C202.d.810

Bernard, Anne-Marie (ed.). The world of Proust, as seen by Paul Nadar. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. C201.c.9880

Les Nadar, un légende photographique. Paris: BnF, 2018. S950.b.201.5289

Nadar [exposition]. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1965. 9400.d.1822

Nadar, Félix. The right to fly. Lodon: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1866. 147.6.20

Id. Quand j’étais étudiant. Paris: E. Dentu, 1881. XXVII.101.47

Id. Correspondance. Nîmes: J. Chambon, 1998. Vol. 1. 9009.c.3335

Id. Mémoires d’un géant. Paris: Delpire, 2015. 2015.8.2833

Id. When I was a photographer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. C204.d.3694

Rubin, James H. Nadar. London: Phaidon, 2001. 2007.6.1015

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