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The Nadars, a photographic legend

II. L’art du portrait

The Nadars


The Origins of Nadar's Pantheon

By Jean-Didier Wagneur
Nadar’s Pantheon was the most sprawling caricature-based endeavor ever attempted in the 19th century, requiring the use of a lithographic stone of exceptional size in order to contain the caricatures of the 250 characters Nadar arranged in a carnival-like procession. It is an emanation of an essentially media-based culture and of a society ruled by exacerbated individualism. Before Nadar, newspapers like La Silhouette, La Caricature, and Le Charivari published silhouettes and caricatured portraits of the era’s celebrities. Paris, daily life, the different social sets, the diverse and varied worlds that made up the Big City were the subject of a school of literature that refracted them into thousands of images and texts. Walter Benjamin named that movement “panoramic literature,” in reference to the panorama shows that were popular back then, theatrical establishments where visitors were surrounded by 360° of paintings: tableaux of the capital, physiologies of stylish men and women of Paris – from working-class, female “Grisettes” to Dandies – offered Parisians the thrill of recognition and a sense of belonging to that post-revolutionary, rapidly evolving society. Baudelaire summed up the phenomenon with this postulate: “Since Paris loves to hear about Paris most of all, the crowd revels in the mirrors in which it sees its own reflection.”

Nadar’s Pantheon reflects what was known as “illustrations” of the day. The concept was drawn partly from the principle of Benjamin Roubaud’s Charivari Pantheon, except that Roubaud offered a series of discrete caricatures, while Nadar staged them as a coherent, dynamic whole. That whole partook of the neo-classical taste for Dionysian processions and Roman triumphs, while at the same time instilling a touch of satirical humor that made viewers feel like they were in on the joke. In “The Great Race to the Academy,” one could see the prolegomena of the procession, which the century would systematize in journals’ textual and pictorial layout, which decompartmentalizes images’ space, making them more dynamic and creating a hierarchy within their elements.
Paul Gavarni (1804-1866), Benjamin Roubaud (1811-1847), circa 1860-1880
Caricature published in The Charivari Pantheon (1839-1841)
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Benjamin Roubaud (1811-1847), circa 1860-1880
Caricature published in The Charivari Pantheon (1839-1841)
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Jean-Jacques Grandville (1803-1847), Benjamin Roubaud (1811-1847), circa 1860-1880
Caricature published in The Charivari Pantheon (1839-1841)
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Nadar had grasped society’s enthusiasm for the spectacle of itself early on. Léo Lespès commissioned one hundred caricature-portraits of authors, each one accompanied by a humorous biography. They were published in the August 8, 15, and 22, 1847 editions of the Journal du dimanche. Loïc Chotard quite rightly sees Nadar’s endeavor prefigured in one of the drawings published in the Journal pour rire, “The Constitutional Assembly’s Moving Day.” One could add “The Political Products Fair,” published in the same newspaper. Both of those plates bring figures together around a common theme, but they are still laid out linearly, as is the new series of caricature-portraits accompanied by nutshell biographies, “La Lanterne magique,” which appeared in 1852. Repressive laws imposed at that time by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte prevented Nadar from touching on political issues, so the subjects of his caricature were drawn exclusively from the worlds of literature and art. Like a harbinger of the Pantheon, that endeavor is also noteworthy for the collective effort that went into it. Collaborators assisted him in gathering the biographical information and in producing initial sketches that acted as preludes for the definitive caricatures.

The brochure announcing the fundraising campaign for Nadar’s Pantheon was published during the summer of 1852 in L’Éclair, a newspaper that Nadar contributed to. Funding came from the Pereire Brothers and Polydore Millaud, who immediately purchased 400 portraits. Assisted by a team that included his brother Adrien, Nadar arranged sittings for his models in his studio at 18 Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, before moving to 113 Rue Saint Lazare. The project would be plagued by repeated delays.