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The Nadars, a photographic legend

I. The Nadars

The Nadars


I. The Nadars

The Nadars’ business was exceptional in every particular: one of the most famous photographic studios of the 19th century, well established in Paris and at times in the provinces as well, managing both a collection and a reputation that survived into the 20th century.
Façade of the studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, around 1861
© Jérôme Le Scanff, BnF
Three generations contributed to the sustainability of the Nadar pseudonym, which was active for almost a century, from 1855 to 1948: the brothers Adrien and Félix Nadar; Paul Nadar, Félix and Ernestine Nadar’s son; and finally, Marthe Nadar, Paul’s daughter. None of the other great studios from the mid-19th century, such as Reutlinger’s or Pierre Petit’s, outlasted World War II. All of them faded into the history books, or into an oblivion that has never washed over the Nadars. The House of Nadar, which stayed in one family, stood out for its longevity. The constant promoting of the Gallery of Contemporaries that Félix initiated, and the Nadars’ many activities above and beyond the portrait studio allowed them to stay up to date, and from the 1920s onward, to benefit from the growing public interest in their medium and its early history. The saga came to an end in 1950, when the French state purchased the entire collection, having already made partial purchases in 1897, 1907-1908 and 1943. The price, which was higher for negatives than for prints, bore witness to the collection’s potential, which was still seen as considerable at that time. […]

The Three Nadars

The Plural Story of a Single Pseudonym

The story and the success of the Nadar pseudonym correspond to the flamboyant and overwhelming temperament of its creator, Félix Tournachon. Even before their photographic endeavors, the Nadar signature enjoyed great renown and was a precious asset in promoting the new activity. Both a personality cult and a trademark, use of the name generated confusion in attributing authorship to their photographic work. The pseudonym, briefly loaned to Adrien, would turn into a burdensome inheritance for Paul, who had trouble imposing his first name and making it his own. Félix’s founding yet destructive lawsuit against his own brother was the occasion for voluble pleas that cemented the legend of his photographic beginnings, the creation myth of a studio that would last nearly a hundred years. By referring to “the three Nadars,” we can better distinguish each one’s respective work.
The story begins in 1830, with Félix, whom Charles Baudelaire called “the most astonishing expression of vitality,” adding, “Adrien told me that his brother Félix had all the vital organs in double.” Anecdotes abound about Félix Nadar’s exuberant, obstreperous temperament, and his not-always-funny jokes. A few comments from his contemporaries and his loved ones suffice to grasp it.
Self-portrait, Félix Nadar, around 1855
© Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Self-portrait, Félix Nadar, 1856-1858
© Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum
His professions and talents are many: novelist, press baron, journalist, caricaturist, photographer, businessman, scientist, entrepreneur. Nothing about him is mediocre, yet it would seem that it it as a photographer that he excelled most particularly, for posterity has stubbornly pigeonholed him as such. Nonetheless, from his first book, La Robe de Déjanire (Deianira’s Dress, 1845), to his last, Charles Baudelaire intime : le poète vierge (An Intimate Portrait of Charles Baudelaire: The Virgin Poet), published posthumously in 1911, he produced an endless stream of books and articles. What’s more, he always – perhaps even first and foremost – thought of himself as a man of letters. His deepest and most long-lasting admirations were for authors, whose portraits –particularly those of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and George Sand – were exposed in the Nadar studios and at exhibits in large and small formats and as paintings based on the photographs. […]
Charles Baudelaire in an armchair, Félix Nadar around 1855
© Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Georges Sand, close-up, Félix Nadar, 1864
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
In 1852, with Nadar’s Pantheon, he reveled in the pleasure of having set himself an enormous personal challenge that turned all eyes on him and put him in the history books. From then on he took on all sorts of oversized endeavors, dragging first his brother and wife, and later his son – let alone friends like Charles Philipon, Émile and Eugène Pereire, Léon Noël and others – along with him: the studio on Boulevard des Capucines, the balloon he christened Le Géant, underground photography, the balloons during the siege of Paris, a new studio on Rue d’Anjou, one in Marseille… and on and on. His life was a succession of ideas involving financial risk-taking to an unreasonable and sometimes even incomprehensible degree… as though he had decided to show the world that he could take it on single-handedly. Finding money, succeeding “anyway,” according to the motto he adopted as his own (“you do not admit non-success” his brother once wrote to him), focusing all his energy first on one goal, then on another, were the mainstays of his existence practically to the end. After the Pantheon, that all-encompassing energy was focused on photography in a battle for first place with his own brother. In Félix’s image, the studio on Boulevard des Capucines toppled into theatrical excess.
He succumbed to a fever of one-upmanship that saw him trying to compete with the fancy studios on major Parisian boulevards that even had branches devoted strictly to equestrian portraits. […] Jean Sagne analyzes how Félix went from bored to disgusted with the photography studio as early as the 1860s, arguing that the boredom explains his all-consuming passion for anything other than the drudgery of his work as a portraitist: aerial photography, which he patented in 1858; photography by artificial light, in 1859; defending the cause of heavier-than-air craft starting in 1863, etc. By 1861, Félix had agreed to turn his splendid artist’s proofs from the 1850s, his drawings from the Pantheon, and the portraits sold by his brother into portrait-cards. He would grasp at any straw to try to appease his creditors, and his passion for photography only reemerged exceptionally. It required an early Sarah Bernhardt, a George Sand, Eugène Chevreul or the death of Victor Hugo to lure him back behind the camera with real inspiration.
Portrait of Ernestine Nadar in three poses (close-up), Félix Nadar around 1885
© Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum
Ernestine Nadar, Frédérique O’Connell (1823-1885)
© Le Bourget, Air & Space Museum
The only things that kept him from bankruptcy were the vigilance and indefectible support of the Pereire brothers and the constant oversight of his wife, Ernestine Nadar, who wore herself out trying to keep the enterprise’s erratic finances afloat until 1886, when the company was finally sound and debt-free. That year, when Adrien wrote to Ernestine Nadar to ask her what painted backdrops should be made for the studio on Rue d’Anjou, he mentioned “[her] long experience of business matters” and “the profession that [she is] undoubtedly the brains behind.” The following year, aged just 50, she had a stroke that kept her away from the studio for good, leaving it in Paul’s hands. […]
Adrien, the second Tournachon, a laid-back artist, was the very archetype of the bohemian. Pouring his talent and artistry into photography in the early 1850s, he brought great cachet to the emerging art form.
Self-portrait lying on a draped sofa with a cane and a hat, Adrien Tournachon, around 1858
© Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum
He is the one who infused his brother with the beaux-arts spirit, which had been applied to photography by Gustave Le Gray, whose pupil he was. It was his influence, once again, that led Félix, at least on Rue Saint Lazare, to attempt, like Gustave Le Gray and the Bissons before him, to reconcile photography’s artistic aspirations with the financial demands of running a business.
Paul is the third Nadar, “that third us,” to use Adrien’s charming expression. A pampered only child whose picture was taken a thousand times, he spent the 1870s behind a camera, assisting his mother in running the business when the studio moved to 51 Rue d’Anjou in 1871. Despite his undeniable talent and the devotion to the family business that enabled him to insure the name’s longevity for over 50 years, Paul is still seen as little more than his father’s shadow, possessing neither Félix’s intuitive genius nor his outsized personality. Yet of the three, he was the only truly professional photographer. In 1889, when Adrien ventured a complaint, his father defended him thus, “Alone, extending the day’s work well into the night oft each week, all in order to quietly, modestly, without a phrase or a word, manage to do his duty to his loved ones. That is the fact, the fact that none of us should ever forget, or even less, disdain.”
Self-portrait in city dress, Paul Nadar, 26 December 1888
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Unlike his uncle, Paul inherited the name Nadar, and did his best to emancipate himself from it. When he took over the task of running the studio, his goal was to turn it into a modern business. The younger man would find it difficult to live up to his father’s reputation or to leave his own name on the next stage of the family business’s history. When the ill-tempered Félix got into a disagreement with his son over their respective places at the 1889 World’s Fair, their mutual friend A. Périn attempted to mediate.
When the studio legally became his son’s property, in the mid-1890’s, Félix went through a sort of remake of the conflict that had pitted him against his brother Adrien decades earlier.
Paul, who was by then the owner of the Parisian studio, was obliged to announce that “the house has no branch offices” – just as his father had done years before, when he was suing his brother. Félix had transferred ownership of the family business to Paul, but he could still benefit from his pseudonym’s renown outside of Paris. In 1895, he decided to open a new studio in the south of France. “As of today, my 75 years of age and I are planning to go start over somewhere around Nice... My name, which I am at least allowed to use elsewhere, might still be worth something down there…” It wasn’t until 1908 that the father officially transferred his pseudonym to his son.
After the adventure of the Pantheon, and with the same all-consuming energy, Félix, absorbed in his battle with Adrien to hold onto first place, decided to give photography a try. That’s when the pseudonym Nadar, which he had at one time leant to his brother, was wrested back for his own use.
Five letters that would soon became the symbol of both a stunning success and the flamboyant, overwhelming temperament of their creator. Later they would also turn into a crushing inheritance for Paul, who struggled to impose his first name and make them his own.

Sibling Rivalry

“A sensitive and promising artist overshadowed by an irresistible rival”

[…] In the spring of 1854, Félix was caught off guard by the sudden realization of how successful his brother was becoming, thanks in part to the tremendous popularity of photographic portraits on paper. Coming from the effervescent world of small satirical newspapers – he had been in their midst since adolescence, and had grown up alongside them – Félix was always hot on the trail of novelty and hoped to be a part of it. Yet so absorbed was he by the imminent publication of his famous Pantheon that he had not planned for his less-enterprising younger brother to suddenly be riding such a wave of success. Thus he hastened all the more voluntarily to Adrien’s side when, in late August, 1854, the younger man requested his help, as he was wont to do. Félix took in the rudiments of this new art at top speed, learning from the photographer Camille d’Arnaud, who had recently left the press and set himself up in a partnership with Auguste Adolphe Bertsch, the collodion specialist.
Alexandre Pothey (1820-1897), d’après un dessin d’Étienne Carjat (1828-1906) « "The only Nadar, the true Nadar, Rue St Lazare 113!!!" »
Le Diogène, 30 november 1856, n° 17
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
« Adrien Tournachon (formerly Nadar the Younger) », C. Dumoulin
Caricature published in Le Gaulois. 2 ma y1858
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
The brothers’ five-month cooperation, from August 1854 to January 1855, was a model of cheerful, healthy emulation. The enterprise, known then as “Nadar the younger,” paired the younger man’s artistic sensibility with his elder’s energy, address book and powers of persuasion. I would even go so far as to state that the art of portraiture that was taught to the younger man by Gustave Le Gray was transmitted directly to the elder, whose ingenuity immediately made the connection between his earlier skills and this new tool. In early 1855, when Adrien naively asked his brother to let him run his now-thriving business on his own, that was no longer an option. Once Félix had grasped that photography was a source of revenue and fame far superior to any of his previous activities, it was out of the question for him to abandon it. On the contrary: he had to succeed, and brilliantly at that. His talent and his address book made that possible.
Adrien’s stunning success at the 1855 World’s Fair – with his prize-wining series of Pierrots inspired by Jean-Gaspard Deburau; his collaboration with two acolytes, the baritone Jules Lefort and the organist Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wely, who were surely counting on the fruitful pairing of the fad for photographic portraits on paper and the renowned Nadar name plastered on a fashionable main street – plus the favors of the Empress, acquired through the intercession of Lefébure-Wely, all led to a terrible falling-out between the two brothers.[…] Joseph Lorentz, who designed Adrien’s splendid poster, was equally distressed by it, and admonished Félix.
After their falling-out and the terrible, two-year-long (1856-1857) lawsuit over the pseudonym Nadar, the elder brother eventually won the exclusive right to use it. Adrien pursued his career as a photographer for a few years more, but that public defeat affected him deeply. The battle for the name that would start up again, even more painfully, decades later between Félix and Paul Nadar, led to an error of judgment. The fact that Adrien had signed photographs that were indeed his – a fact that was never in dispute – with a name that he was no longer allowed to use, led people to confuse usurpation of the name with usurpation of the work. Thus, works signed by Adrien with all of his successive signatures were attributed in good faith to Félix, or at least to the brief period of brotherly collaboration, from late August 1854 to mid-January 1855.

Was it believed that portraits bathed in such harsh light, most of which had been taken outside, could not possibly all have been done in those few autumnal and wintry months, but far more likely, for most of them, either before or after? One sad and final piece of evidence: a receipt from April, 1863 in which Adrien acknowledges having received 124.96 Francs for “full settlement of my royalties from the sale of contemporary cards sold since October 1863 (sic for 1861) (…) printed from shots I had left on deposit with them.” By September, 1861, forced by both the loan payments on his huge studio on Boulevard des Capucines and the insistence of his shareholders, including his friend Charles Philipon, Nadar was turning his lovely, large-scale portraits into calling-card-sized images he could sell more of, more quickly. Grasping at any straw he could find, he even bought the rights to the portraits taken by his brother, who had been definitively driven out of photography by then.

Félix actually abandoned photography at the same time as his brother, around 1862. He experienced his “creative years” as the lovely title of the exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay put it, from 1856 to 1860. After that, as an “artistic genius voluntarily confined to the hellish conditions of Parisian living-earning,” he opened the all-consuming studio on Boulevard des Capucines. Around 1862, he was already starting to neglect it in order to devote himself to aerial navigation and a few scientific applications for photography, leaving the day-to-day business of the studio to his wife and his employees, and later to his son. In 1861 he considered going into partnership with Louis-Jean Delton to do equestrian photography, at the precise moment that his brother had fleetingly made that his specialty on the Champs Élysées.

The Nadars by the Nadars

The 19th-century photographers all took self-portraits. Those often remarkable works were open to the genre’s limitless possibilities: experimentation, staging oneself, playing with photomontages and deformations, and more. Family portraits were more often the province of serious amateurs, like Hippolyte Bayard, Olympe Aguado, Henri Le Secq, the Hugos, and, later, Pierre Bonnard and Émile Zola.

In this domain, too, the Tournachon-Nadars stand out: Félix, Adrien and Paul tried out absolutely every type of self-representation imaginable. From the 1850s to the 1930s, from studio portraits to casual snapshots, every possibility, every process, every style, every subject was explored. The profusion was such that it necessitated devoting an entire section of the exhibit to it.

Family portraiture is where Ernestine Nadar makes an appearance. For over thirty years, that strong, discreet woman kept an iron hand on family affairs, smoothing over the quarrels, first between brothers, then between father and son.

Photography was also taking caricaturists’s place: Félix Nadar’s lanky silhouette, which had long delighted them, now posed for the camera, and Félix himself clearly reveled in it. Droll, serious, or in costume, snapped by himself, his brother, or his son, he knew perfectly well he was a walking advertisement for his studios.

By signing two of the most stunning portraits of the century – his self-portraits in a straw hat – Adrien proved his desire to raise photography to the rank of the fine arts. As for Paul, who had been photographed from the time he was an infant at his nursemaid’s breast, he didn’t leave the studio until his death. He spent his entire life both in front of and behind the camera, and knew and used all of his century’s many different photographic processes.

This portrait gallery describes each one’s hopes and desires, and portrays their characters – in both senses of the term: Adrien as a dandy; Ernestine, as first a blushing bride then a businesswoman; Félix as an Eskimo, Ernestine in a Middle Eastern costume; Paul as a businessman and an explorer. Their studios’ moments of glory are woven through those images: young Paul is seen with the Japanese ambassadors in the grand studio on Boulevard des Capucines; Félix and Adrien’s earliest portraits shot in artificial light; Félix and Ernestine in a balloon basket at the time of the Géant adventure; Sénart, where Félix and Ernestine retired in 1887, Félix and Paul’s “instant” photos; Ernestine, a touching patient surrounded by her adoring loved ones.

This category of pictures, which intertwines their talents, professions, and persons, is the ideal witness to the history and hopes, the trials and tribulations of the Nadar family.
Flip through the family photo album

Félix Nadar As Seen by His Contemporaries

Nadar the Great… Nadar is the incarnation of the marriage of caricature, his era’s new technologies, and a taste for adventure over a backdrop of Paris at a time when all options were open. At the time of the Géant, a small newspaper, L’ ne (The Donkey), came up with this very modern headline: “Planet Nadar.” Arsène Houssaye, the director of L’Artiste, was positively hyperbolic.
He’s at every performance, every inauguration, every ever-so-slightly solemn occasion where “everybody who’s anybody” in Paris is present, setting the tone for the rest of the world. People point when he strolls down the boulevard.” Félix Tournachon certainly stood out: physically, his red hair, great height, slender build and long legs made him look like some kind of strange insect. “He’s a regular daddy-long-legs with outsized antennae, wandering from Boulevard des Italiens to Rue Saint Lazare with the unlikely gait of a windmill on a gusty day,” wrote Jules Richard in the June 8, 1857 edition of Rabelais. “Nadar: Paris’s own overgrown Tom Thumb,” Ernest d’Hervilly could conclude in La Lune.
« Nadar », Gill (1840-1885) [André Gilles]
Title page of issue 65 of La Lune, 2 June 1867
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
« Nadar », Delovoti
Caricature published in Le Hanneton from 27 June 1867
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Years before, Alphonse Karr had been somewhat disconcerted by the bohemian-looking new collaborator Nerval introduced to him for his Journal. “Some kind of giant: huge legs, long arms, a long chest; topping all that off, a head bristling with red hair, and lively, intelligent, scared eyes.” That’s how he drew himself in Les Binettes contemporaines by his friend Commerson, the editor-in-chief of a popular satirical newspaper, Le Tintamarre.

His myopic eyes and unusual hair color identified him like emblems; he was as flamboyant as his “jacket of a scarlet as intense as God’s crimson,” Théodore de Banville wrote. Nadar, a “devil of a man,” had to be red, as red as his name on the front of his studio on Boulevard des Capucines. He was born to attract attention; he knew it, and enjoyed using it to his advantage.

Giving him a taste of his own medicine, the caricaturist was the subject of a great number of sketches himself. On May 15, 1852, in Le Journal pour rire (The Humorous Newspaper), the illustrator Bertall drew him as a talented rival whose political ideas were worrisome. The drawing, one of the first known representations of Nadar, has no warmth and leans towards the caustic: the captions have a heavy-handed humor: “Nadar is well-known for putting on airs to toss the salad.” The example is atypical. In 1856, his bohemian friends granted him a place of honor in Le Diogène: the illustrator and photographer Etienne Carjat portrayed him sitting next to a camera, and the words “The only Nadar… Nadar… The one true Nadar” – allusions to the on-going lawsuit with his brother Adrien – can be seen scrawled on the wall. Hadol did something similar in the March 17, 1861 edition of Le Gaulois: Nadar is gazing unblinkingly at the reader, while holding in his hand a wick blazing with his imaginative ideas: smile! But André Gill gets credit for having come up with Nadar’s caricatured doppelganger, blending the elements that had already become imprinted on the collective imagination. On June 2, 1867, Gill drew Nadar clinging to his balloon under his majestic signature. It was the perfect portrait of a veritable “dare-devil,” one who had already been fictionalized under the plume of none other than Jules Verne, in From the Earth to the Moon. The character’s name: Michel Ardan, since he did everything ardently, of course. In the book, he is the only Frenchman who can vie with the members of the Baltimore Gun Club hoping to go “over the moon.” Verne’s character wasn’t just inspired by Nadar, it was the most realistic fictionalization possible, as can be seen from Henri de Montaut’s drawings. In 1878, in the huge biographical caricature for the series Men of Today, Nadar is Number 8 out of some 500 Parisian celebrities. Gill once again: hair, gaze, grin, balloon, plume, camera… not a single element of the caricature is missing.
« Nadar », André Gill (1840-1885)
Cover of the journal Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui november 1878
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
« House of Nadar », A. Humbert, at P. Lebigre-Duquesne (Paris), 1868
Caricature published in chapter 15 of Comical Houses by Charles Virmaître and Élie Frébault , chapter 15
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
If the French were all “Nadar’s contemporaries,” as the title of one of his caricature series put it, it was because both of his many qualities and of his idiosyncrasy, as people used to say of him. Nadar was an enterprising man, and although he didn't always succeed, he always had a finger firmly on the pulse of his turbulent century.

It was thanks to human qualities rarely found in a man whose actions never depended on society’s rules or on making concessions to them. He was funny, loved to crack jokes, never hid his social background, and was merciless with imposters. Ahead of his time, he was also a real “communicator,” minus the insincerity the term so often implies. He was always open to opportunities, had exceptional intuition, and never encumbered himself with prejudice. He thought outside the box and was a man of passionate enthusiasm. Many writers noted that about him. The poet Banville, for instance, said, “… On his forehead, equal to the comets / Nadar flaunts a blazing fire.”

Nadar of a thousand friendships: Having barely arrived in life, “He already knew every mortal, from the Laplanders to the Kaffirs” (Banville). Philipon, his boss at the Journal amusant wrote.
He’s on a first name basis with everyone, including the stars in the sky. He manages to charm them all, even the most resistant, like Louis Veuillot, a polemical, ultra-Catholic journalist who became a groupie of the “scarlet” anti-Royalist.

Yet Félix Tournachon was still the person who knew Nadar best. In this portrait from Les Mémoires du Géant (Memoirs of Le Géant), he anticipates all possible criticisms of his illustrious personage.
By becoming Nadar, Félix Tournachon became his true self, and that is why other people admired him.