Daguerre, Louis

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DAGUERRE, LOUIS (1787–1851), French artist and inventor of the daguerreotype.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was born 18 November 1787 in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, France, and attended public school in Orléans before moving to Paris around 1803. In 1808, he appears in the official records of the painting studio of the Opera, where he held various posts through 1816, when he was named the chief decorator of the Ambigu-Comique theater. He returned briefly to the Opera studio as co-chief painter with Pierre-Luc Ciceri from 1820 to 1822.

Simultaneous with his work as a stage painter, Daguerre also exhibited in the official Parisian Salon, where he made his debut in 1814. His early works share much in common with the troubadour style, a kind of medieval revival in painting, as exemplified by the historical genre scenes by Pierre Révoil and Fleury-François Richard, as well as the gothic interiors popularized by François-Marius Granet. Daguerre was also among the first French artists to experiment with lithography, producing prints for two important illustrated works, Count Auguste de Forbin's Voyage dans le Levant (1819) and several volumes of Charles Nodier and the baron Isidore-Justin-Séverin Taylor's Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l'ancienne France (1820–1878).

Daguerre was also the entrepreneur of the popular spectacle known as the Diorama, which he organized as a limited stock company in 1821 with his partner, the painter Charles-Marie Bouton. The Diorama was a building designed by Daguerre that housed two large, semitransparent paintings illuminated by natural light. Daguerre and Bouton employed blinds and colored screens to represent natural effects of time, light, and movement in painted interior and exterior views. The public, seated in a central auditorium, was transported from one scene to the next by means of a rotating viewing platform. Daguerre's talent for lighting effects and illusionism, along with his solid understanding of printmaking techniques, led him to the invention of the daguerreotype (first publicly announced in 1839), which became the first commercially successful photographic process.

The daguerreotype is a photographic image with a mirrorlike surface on a silver or silver-coated copper plate. Unlike most paper photographs, the daguerreotype is not produced from a negative, and the final image has the ability to appear either positive or negative depending on the angle of reflected light. Daguerreotypes are remarkably luminous and capable of producing subtle gradation of tone and extraordinary detail. These qualities are evident in Daguerre's own daguerreotypes of architectural scenes and still-lifes of plaster casts. The daguerreotype process eventually was used primarily for portraiture, but Daguerre's own early interest in and production of portraits is still a debated topic, as is his business relationship with Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, who had invented an earlier photographic process distinct from the daguerreotype.

By January 1826, when Daguerre wrote to Niépce about the possibility of fixing the images of a camera obscura, the latter had already worked out the fundamentals of his photographic process, which he called heliography. Niépce had begun experimenting with photochemical processes as early as 1816, achieved notable results by 1824, and produced the world's earliest extant stabilized camera image sometime in 1826–1827. Niépce eventually visited Daguerre at the Diorama in August 1827, and the two men formed a company on 14 December 1829 in order to exploit both Nièpce's invention, based on the photosensitvity of bitumen of Judea, an asphaltic residue used in etching, and Daguerre's improvements to the camera obscura. After Niépce's death (5 July 1833), Daguerre signed a new contract on 9 May 1835 with Niépce's son, Isidore. The new contract changed the name of the partnership from "Niépce-Daguerre" to "Daguerre and Isidore Niépce," in light of Daguerre's recognition of the chemical bases of the daguerreotype—iodine and mercury. A final contract was signed on 13 June 1837, naming Daguerre as the sole inventor of the new process, which François Arago, the politician and scientist, announced on 7 January 1839. Arago formally divulged the process to a joint meeting of the Academy of Science and Academy of Fine Arts on 19 August 1839, after the purchase of the process by the French government. Following Arago's announcement, Daguerre sent daguerreotypes to Louis I of Bavaria, Ferdinand I of Austria, Nicholas I of Russia, Frederick William III of Prussia, the Austrian chancellor Clemens von Metternich, and the Austrian ambassador to France A. G. Apponyi. Daguerre also offered daguerreotypes to Arago and to Alphonse de Cailleux, the curator of antiquities at the Louvre.

In 1840 Daguerre retired to the village of Bry-sur-Marne, outside of Paris. While he continued to work on the daguerreotype, periodically sending news of improvements to Arago, photography was no longer his affair. He painted his last diorama for the church of St. Gervais–St. Protais at Bry in 1842. In 1848 he constructed a natural grotto in the park at Bry, returning to the source of his original inspiration, the landscape. He died on 10 July 1851, the same year he was planning another religious diorama painting, a cavalry, for the church at Perreux, in the neighboring town of Nogent-sur-Marne.

See alsoFrance; Nadar, Félix; Photography.


The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855. Exhibition catalog. On CD-ROM. New York and New Haven, Conn., 2003.

Gernsheim, Alison, and Helmut Gernsheim. L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype. 2nd rev. ed. New York, 1968.

Gunthert, Andrè. "L'affaire tournesol." Études photographiques 13 (July 2003): 2–5.

Paris et le daguerrèotype. Exhibition catalog. Paris, 1989.

Pinson, Stephen C. "Daguerre: Expérimentateur du visuel." Études photographiques 13 (July 2003): 110–135.

——. Speculating Daguerre: Art and Enterprise in the Work of L. J. M. Daguerre. Chicago, in press.

Potonniée, Georges. Daguerre: Peintre et décorateur. Paris, 1935.

Stephen C. Pinson