His studio hosted the first Impressionist exhibition and he took the world’s first aerial photo: Félix Nadar lived an extraordinary life, as Cath Pound discovers.
Félix Nadar is a legend in his native France. A tall, exuberant red-haired dynamo with a fascination for fame, he came to know everyone who was anyone in his career as a journalist and caricaturist. Instinctively understanding the emerging interest in celebrity – and the role photography could play in it – he created psychologically complex portraits of the leading artists, writers and actors of mid-19th-Century Paris which managed to turn the nascent medium into an artform.
His talent for self-promotion and daring ballooning exploits ensured he was as well-known as his clients. A fact he emphasised by having his name writ large in red glass tubing – the letters 10ft (3m) high and glowing neon-bright at night – across the front of his sumptuous Parisian photography studio.
“Part of what allowed him to recognise celebrity culture in its nascent form was that he … loved famous people and wanted to be one himself,” explains Nadar’s biographer Adam Begley. “He was a narcissist, but a charming one.”
Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1820, he was given the pseudonym Nadar by a friend and soon started using it as a pen name. He began his career scraping a living as a writer on a series of short-lived newspapers and magazines, through which he cultivated a circle of bohemian writer and artist friends including Charles Baudelaire – who referred to him admiringly as “the most astonishing expression of vitality”.
Flying close to the sun
An early indication of his ambition and stunning self-confidence is evident from his decision to co-found a luxurious literary journal, the Livre d’or, at the age of 19. Nadar managed to secure the involvement of writers as illustrious as Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas. The magazine may have folded before Balzac’s contribution could be published but at least Nadar was able to meet his idol when he went to collect the proofs, an encounter he later liberally embellished in his memoirs.
His membership of the Société des Gens de Lettres enabled him to mingle with the likes of Dumas, George Sand and Victor Hugo, friendships he later charmingly exploited when he became a caricaturist. His work for the Panthéon Nadar, a typically grandiose project which failed to fully come to fruition, was meant to be a who’s who of the nation’s cultural elite in caricature, which would serve to both flatter those included and prove irresistible to the public.
Having his subjects sit for him allowed him to hone his skill for observation, resulting in wittily accurate portrayals that seemed to nail their personality and character traits. His genuine fascination for those he depicted would prove invaluable when he turned to photography in 1854, having first installed his artist brother Adrien in the profession. “He had figured out that people were willing to pay for images of famous people and this was a great tool as the images were quickly replicable and they had a novelty value,” says Begley.
But Nadar was also determined to use the medium to create uniquely insightful works of art. “At the time, most portrait studios were using background and a lot of accessories and focusing on the way people were dressed. Instead, he was focusing on the face, using a neutral background to try and interpret the character of the people,” explains Anne Lacoste, co-curator of an exhibition dedicated to the Nadars at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
He was also uniquely skilled in the use of light, managing to bring his subjects out from their backgrounds and giving their faces a luminous quality often lacking in the work of his peers. A young, unknown Sarah Bernhardt captivates the viewer, her lovely face emphasised by the simple robe in which Nadar has draped her.
In contrast, the then better known Delacroix and Manet both exude a certain pride, Manet’s hand on his hip also hinting at defiance in the face of criticism of his art. “He had a way of making portraits of his sitters that felt psychologically connected so when you looked at the portrait you were interacting with that person – and that was unprecedented,” says Karen Hellman, curator of photography at the Getty Museum and a contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue.
The extent to which Adrien was involved in the production of the early images is controversial. Although he won a medal for his stunning portraits of the mime Charles Deburau, Begley is sceptical. Lacoste, however, is convinced of his talent. “The two self-portraits with straw hats are considered among the best examples in the early story of photography,” she says.
Whatever the truth, when Adrien began styling himself Nadar jeune, Félix had had enough and took him to court to gain sole rights to the name. Once he succeeded, his career flourished while Adrien’s petered out. Moving to plush new premises on the Boulevard des Capucines in 1860 (which he would lend to a group of painters for the first exhibition of Impressionists, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, in 1874), he revelled in his success.
Louis Thiriot, a young photographer from the provinces, was dazzled by the celebrities he saw at Nadar’s studio – composer Jacques Offenbach, artist Gustave Doré, Dumas and the stars of whatever show was then performing at the Comédie Francaise. He was even more amazed by the fencing matches which frequently took place between poses.
However, just as his fame and notoriety were at their peak, Nadar’s interest in the medium appeared to be petering out in favour of a new passion. He had been a keen balloonist, allowing him to take the world’s first aerial photograph – a view of Paris – in 1858; but it proved a dangerous pursuit.
In 1863 Nadar was one of the founders of the Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines, whose aim was to bring an end to ballooning by creating a helicopter. Somewhat bizarrely, Nadar and his colleagues (including the recently published Jules Verne) chose to publicise their venture by creating a massive balloon that stood 12 storeys high – called Le Géant (The Giant).
Undeterred by a disastrous first flight which landed ignominiously a mere 25 miles (40km) from Paris, Nadar set out again on 18 October 1863, this time reaching Germany before a too-swift descent resulted in the balloon being dragged along by high winds and narrowly escaping being hit by a train. The incident garnered headlines around the world and inspired Verne to write his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, whose hero Ardan – a courageous, carefree adventurer – was based on Nadar.
As Nadar’s interest in his business waned, his son Paul took over the reins. Nadar allowed him to use his name, albeit with a certain degree of trepidation, as he was aware that it would reflect on his legacy.
Although Paul chose to photograph the society figures he hoped to emulate, he also shared his father’s passion for the performing arts. However, while Nadar’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt had been “very pure and focusing on her character and not emphasising her talent as an actress, it was completely the opposite with Paul,” says Lacoste. Bernhardt, now unquestionably the most famous actress in the world, is shown dressed in scenes from her plays, the images often embellished with the use of backgrounds to recreate her shows.
As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, Paul’s portraits of the likes of Josephine Baker exuded a sense of modernity but perhaps lacked the psychological depth of Nadar senior.
After Paul, there would be no more famous Nadars. But the name lives on. The fact that it is more often than not linked to Félix alone would undoubtedly please him. To French audiences, at least, he is as iconic as the giants of literature, art and stage he immortalised in his photographs.
The Nadars: A Photographic Legend is on at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris until 3 February 2019.