Adam Begley interviews Ali Smith in our new Summer issue. Begley’s new book, The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera—a biography of the fabled Parisian photographer Félix Nadar—is out this month. The book’s appendix takes a closer look at one of Nadar’s most treasured mementos.
The book, the size of a large photo album, has been disassembled, its two hundred-odd pages cut out and placed each in its own transparent protective sheath. Detached, the leather-bound front cover, with Félix Nadar’s flamboyant signature stamped in the center in gold leaf, lies in a cardboard box looking scuffed and forlorn, like exiled royalty.
The album is a livre d’or, one of several guest books or autograph albums he kept in successive studios. If you came to sit for a portrait (or a caricature, in the early days on the rue Saint-Lazare), and if you were an artist or a celebrity or preferably both, he would pester you to sign and leave a memento: a quip, a sketch, a poem, a few bars of music. Most sitters complied. Many signed and left only a brief remark, if any; others spent hours over a drawing or a watercolor, leaving on the page work of impressive quality. Félix was very proud of his collection of autographs, each one a token of friendship or a link with an eminent individual.
This particular livre d’or, an astonishing record of the rich cultural life of Paris during the Second Empire, is stored in a rare-book library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia? Suffering from one of his periodic bouts of acute insolvency, Félix sold the album at auction in the early 1890s. It was bought by Thomas W. Evans, an American expatriate living in Paris who’d grown rich and respected as the dentist to Napoléon III. When Evans died in 1897, he left his considerable fortune to endow the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute; the livre d’or and his collection of art and antiques were shipped across the Atlantic and housed in the Evans Building, an imposing Tudor Revival edifice erected on the site of his ancestral home, in what is now the middle of the University of Pennsylvania campus. After languishing for decades in the Dental Medicine Library, the Nadar album was transferred in 1985 to the university’s rare books and manuscripts collection. About ten years ago it was taken apart and led away in fourteen cardboard storage boxes.
Few people know it exists; fewer ask to see it. Yet even disbound it evokes the busy ferment of Nadar’s world in the decade after Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état—the decade in which Félix attempted to create a panorama of his illustrious contemporaries. The pages of the livre d’or echo with the voices of talented men (only a handful of women signed the album, mostly opera singers, actresses, and ballerinas), and these voices make many different sounds: friendly greeting; mutual admiration; facetious commentary; and political harangue (mostly socialist). Self-conscious musings and private jokes abound, and always in the background is the buzz of artistic ego, sometimes muted, sometimes not. It’s clear that an element of competition was involved: anybody about to sign would flip through to see what had been done before and by whom. Then there was the delicate business of choosing a page. With whom would you like to be associated?
Nadar’s photographs show us what the cultural elite of his day looked like, the images preserved by the modern miracle of the wet-plate collodion process. A livre d’or makes use of an older, more primitive method to offer a different perspective: the traces it preserves are marks on plain paper left by the individual’s own hand.
On the first page, a pair of writers pop up, Léon Gozlan and Fabrice Labrousse. Each left a sentence and a signature, one on top of the other, like lines of dialogue. The two men were almost exact contemporaries, and both wrote for the theater; they must have known each other but probably visited Nadar’s studio on different days—a pause in the dialogue. A close associate of Balzac, and like Balzac wildly prolific, Gozlan scrawled in his neat but impulsive hand a pronouncement Félix would have endorsed enthusiastically: “Nothing is more immoral than boredom.” Labrousse’s rejoinder—“Nothing is more moral than distraction”—would also have appealed. The rest of the page is blank, as though there were nothing more to say.
This livre d’or is a treasure house of distraction. Here are some highlights.
Sketches of Félix were left by Alexandre Laemlein, Jean Gigoux, Prince Alexis Soltykoff, Alcide Joseph Lorentz, and Charles Amédée de Noé (better known as the cartoonist Cham).
A Bavarian-born history painter, Laemlein was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts at age sixteen to study with a neoclassical painter, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, who promptly died, and then another, François-Édouard Picot—the same Picot who taught Félix’s brother, Adrien.
In his review of the Salon of 1846, Baudelaire paused to mention a painting by Laemlein, Universal Charity:
[A] charming woman holds by the hand and carries at her breast kids from every climate, white, yellow black, etc. … Certainly Mr. Laemlein has an eye for color; but there’s a major flaw in this painting, which is that the little Chinese boy is so pretty, and his robe makes such an agreeable effect that it almost monopolizes the eye of the spectator. The little mandarin is still trotting along in one’s memory.
Somber, handsome, ambitious, Laemlein’s monochrome ink and watercolor portrait of Félix strains with some success for the psychological acuity of a Nadar photograph.
Gigoux tries less hard and does better. His rapid sketch, focused on the eyes, gives the impression of vitality—the quality so many of his friends remarked on. Félix looks as though he’s just noticed something interesting and is about to jump up and investigate.
A talented and versatile painter, Gigoux is today remembered for having been the lover of Balzac’s widow, the Polish noblewoman Ewelina Hanska. In 1851, a year after Balzac’s death, Hanska hired Gigoux to paint a portrait of her daughter Anna; the widow and the artist lived together for the next thirty years.
Prince Soltykoff was an aristocratic Russian diplomat who retired to Paris in 1840 (age thirty-four) and embarked on an unusual second career: over the next six years, he made two long voyages to the Indian subcontinent, traveling from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka and sketching the wonders he beheld. His written account of his exotic adventures and the dramatic lithographs based on his drawings caused a sensation and earned him the nickname “the Indian.”
Soltykoff’s pencil sketch of Félix was made in 1853, a couple of years after the triumphant Russian publication of his book—the prince was at the height of his fame. There’s nothing exotic or dramatic about the portrait; it’s quick, casual, and familiar. Because it’s a profile, only one eye is visible—but that’s the focus of the sketch. Like Gigoux, Soltykoff noticed that the bulk of Félix’s energy went into looking.
Lorentz’s amusing pen and ink drawing of a wild-haired photographer gives us a rare glimpse of Nadar in action, bent in half behind the camera, a bony finger in the air calling for his subject to keep still. An old friend and unreformed bohemian, Lorentz, like many others, earned the contempt of the Goncourt brothers, who called him a “caricaturist manqué” and complained of his “coarse, blunt, traveling-salesman gaiety.”
Cham’s cartoon portrait is weirdly unsettling. Félix’s head is an explosion of orange hair and vigorous orange whiskers, and his jacket and slippers match the hair: he’s a big tall orange monster bursting through the door with an avid, pop-eyed expression on his face. “Mr. Nadar?” he asks, “C’est moi!” It’s possible that the echo of Flaubert’s quip about Emma Bovary is intentional. (Cham’s caricatures are mentioned in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.) As well as evoking Félix’s loud physical presence, the cartoon captures the ad hoc, constructed quality of his identity: both he and Cham were young men when they became someone else by adopting a pseudonym.
Cham’s professional life was as settled and regular as can be: he worked for thirty-six years as an illustrator for Philipon’s Charivari. His private life was settled, too; he ignored the tittering of snobby gossip about his domestic arrangements, as well as rumors of a veiled scandal. An elegant and refined aristocrat with a nimble intellect, he lived for twenty-five years with a woman named Jeanne Leroy, whom he always called Madame Manuel. Alexandre Dumas fils described her as “a fat woman, common looking, ignorant, rude, shamefully miserly, and without any wit.” Dumas wondered, moreover, about her “shadowy past.” But no one doubted Cham’s devotion to her. When his father died in 1858, Cham inherited the title comte de Noé; eight years later, to the astonishment of his friends and family, he married Madame Manuel—which made her the comtesse de Noé. And what about her devotion to him? He died in September 1879; four months later, unable to overcome her grief, the comtesse de Noé threw herself out of a window.
The anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, author of the slogan “Property is theft,” thundered, “After the persecutors, I know nothing more detestable than the martyrs.”
Many pages later, another anarchist pops up: the Russian aristocrat turned tireless revolutionary Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, who signed his name in the French manner, Bakounine. Visiting on August 7, 1862, he left this enigmatic warning: “Watch out that liberty doesn’t come to you from the north.” Just a year earlier he’d made a daring escape from perpetual exile in Siberia.
Below Bakunin’s signature is an ink wash sketch by Jean-François Millet of a pair of clogs, as plain and honest as a big toe. Félix considered Millet one of the best living French painters; he praised his art as “essentially democratic.”
Bakunin and Millet—what a confluence! Did Bakunin spot the clogs and feel that this realist depiction was a good match for his political convictions? Or did Millet see Bakunin’s signature and feel moved to leave an emblem of humble peasantry? Or was it just serendipity?
Perhaps the oddest page of the album consists of fantastical doodles of grotesque goblins and monsters by Baudelaire’s friend Armand du Mesnil, a bureaucrat who worked doggedly in the ministry of education for forty years, a career he embarked on after his father decamped for America and left him to care for his mother and a young niece. Though his day job was a necessity, he yearned for the literary life; according to his old pal Théodore de Banville, du Mesnil had a “lyrical soul always over owing with poetry and dreams.” In his free time, he wrote plays and stories. Later, too busy to write but still loyal to the bohemian ideals of his youth, he used his government position to advance a series of petitions on behalf of Baudelaire. It was hoped that a state pension might help relieve the poet’s chronic debt. Du Mesnil’s efforts met with partial success: from time to time Baudelaire received from the ministry grants of several hundred francs. But no pension was forthcoming, not even when he was paralyzed by a stroke in 1866 and a succession of prominent literary gures added their voices to the latest petition.
The curious du Mesnil doodles include a rabbitlike creature with alarming teeth and claws; running human legs that meet at a crotch that is a face; a knock-kneed humanoid with the head of a cross-eyed bird; and a skinny goblin skipping rope. The gothic flavor of the drawings is a reminder that tales of supernatural horror were enormously popular at the time. Baudelaire, the keen-eyed apostle of modernity, was as famous for having translated Poe as he was for the scandal of Les fleurs du mal. The daydreams of his friend du Mesnil, the kind-hearted government bureaucrat whose career obliged him to be the servant of the orderly and the rational, were populated with nightmare monsters, surreal creatures crawling out of the unconscious.
Reminiscing at the end of his life about Baudelaire and their bohemian heyday, Félix enumerated the friends he would meet in the poet’s company, among them “the excellent Armand du Mesnil.”
Henry Monnier, a talented illustrator who was also an actor and a playwright, left a drawing of a horse-drawn carriage with a coachman on the back—but the carriage is a man’s head in profile. It’s an eerie image, at once surreal and familiar.
A good friend of Balzac, Monnier served as the model for Jean-Jacques Bixiou, a caricaturist who appears in several volumes of La comédie humaine. Monnier’s specialty was poking fun at the bourgeoisie, especially in the person of Monsieur Prudhomme, a character he invented who was, in Balzac’s words, “the illustration of the type of the Parisian middle-class.”
Honoré Daumier’s contribution to the livre d’or is a pencil drawing of Henry Monnier posing as Monsieur Prudhomme—literally posing, with his head secured by a mechanical brace that holds it in a fixed position. The device is a joke on the seemingly endless exposure time required by early photography and the difficulty of holding still.
Gustave Doré, meanwhile, made a drawing of a fat cupid smoking a clay pipe—and identified it as a portrait of Daumier.
Nadar’s masterful portraits of Daumier look nothing like a cupid—they’re grand and solemn and charged with reverence—but the resemblance to Doré’s sketch is undeniable. Note the angle of the eyebrow and the concentrated energy around the eyes.
The prolific illustrator and caricaturist Bertall was Félix’s colleague and rival at Philipon’s Journal pour rire: one week the cover would be Nadar’s, the next week Bertall’s. He also set up as a professional photographer in the same year as Félix (but later his business went bust). Bertall was short and testy, with a thick, pointed beard. And he was an aristocrat, with the cushion of family money behind him. (Bertall was a pseudonym; his real name was Charles Constant Albert Nicolas, vicomte d’Arnoux, comte de Limoges-Saint-Saëns.) There was every reason why he and Félix should have been less than friendly. And yet Bertall drew in the album a lovely, haunting image of a naked man incubating under a bell jar. Haunting and mysterious.
Who is this man in the pose of a dejected thinker, head bowed, his arms wrapped around an ink pen the size of a lance? The words JOURNAL POUR RIRE, also under the bell jar, could mean that the paper incubated an illustrator’s talent. But what’s the significance of the pumpkin (or whatever it is) under the second bell jar? Very possibly it’s a visual pun, an in-joke we’re unable to enjoy from this distance. It reminds us, in any case, that cartoonists, like clowns, can strike a desperately melancholy note.
All images, except where noted, courtesy of Thomas W. Evans Papers, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.
This text is excerpted from The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, published this month by Tim Duggan Books. Copyright (c) 2017 by Adam Begley. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Adam Begley is the author of Updike. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 2010 and a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography in 2011; from 1997 to 2009 he was the books editor of The New York Observer. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives with his wife in Cambridgeshire, England.