Nadar, Félix

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NADAR, FÉLIX (1820–1910), French photographer and artist.

Félix Nadar's life was one of prodigious creativity, ingenuity and he flourished as a chronicler of the bohemian and artistic elite of nineteenth century Paris. Nadar was born Gaspar-Félix Tournachon on 6 April 1820 in Paris, to Victor Tournachon, a Lyon-nais printer, and Thérèse Maillet. He initially studied medicine, supported himself by writing drama criticism for newspapers, and soon became a central part of the group that was immortalized in the novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Mürger (1822–1861). Nadar straddled the societies of bohemian down-and-out artists, writers, and students and the more established circle around Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Nadar raised the money to publish a series of literary albums, engaging the literary lights of his acquaintance: Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870), Theophile Gautier (1811–1872), Gerard de Nerval (1808–1855), Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863), and Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). The albums were a financial failure and were aborted before the Balzac work was even published.

By 1841, Tournachon, through a playful word game alchemy, had evolved into Nadar in his written correspondence. In this new name, he became a member of the Société des Gens de Lettres in 1842. After the political upheaval of 1848, he joined the Polish Foreign Legion, was arrested on the German border and briefly imprisoned, but Nadar promptly parlayed his experiences into an opportunity to spy for the French.

Nadar really earned renown as a caricaturist at publications such as Le Journal pour Rire (Newspaper for laughs), founded by his mentor and supporter, Charles Philipon (1800–1862). Although he drew hundreds of caricatures in a relatively short period of time, his lifestyle was such that he landed in debtors' prison in Clichy in 1850.

Panthéon Nadar, a singularly ambitious and ill-fated project, would mark the turning point in his life. Nadar endeavored to combine his acquaintances and drawing skill, to exploit the burgeoning cult of celebrity in Paris by creating a giant work containing the images of a thousand celebrities of arts and letters. In 1854, as his Panthéon Nadar was failing to result in a profit, Nadar married, moved his dependent brother into the profession of photography, and then, quite taken with medium's potential, opened up his own business. The result was a certain amount of confusion about authorship until, ultimately, Nadar had to resort to suing his brother for the sole proprietorship of his name.

Nadar's singular talents as a caricaturist and photographer were enhanced by his thorough knowledge of the art, which is evident in his prolific criticism and subtle use of light, composition, and expressiveness in his portraits. Nadar's photographic work soon gained attention, and he managed to take over the studio that Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884, who had been his brother's instructor) and the Bisson Brothers had vacated on Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. He painted the facade bright red, with his signature emblazoned

across it. Nadar registered a number of patents for techniques and devices that he developed to improve his practice, including a method of color photography without retouching and electrical lights with reflectors. Nadar took these lights from the studio underground to document the sewers and then the catacombs below Paris.

Nadar was a founder of an organization that was devoted to the development of flying machines heavier than air. Flights in his balloon, Le Géant, publicized the group, although their aim was to replace such devices. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), Nadar flew to 9,000 feet (above the reach of the enemy's guns) to carry communications out of Paris. Soon he organized a fleet of airmail vehicles he named after his friends, such as George Sand (1804–1876) and Victor Hugo (1802–1885). After the war, Nadar was out of money and was forced to rent out his premises and set up a more modest commercial concern, gradually transferring its management to his son, Paul. The elder Nadar now devoted himself to a series of books and memoirs.

The first Impressionist Exhibition took place in Nadar's premises on the Boulevard des Capucines. Nadar himself organized career retrospectives of two friends of his youth who had fallen into obscurity, Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) and Constantin Guys (1802–1892). At the age of seventy-seven, Nadar opened a photography studio in Marseilles. He continued to write and court publicity; in 1900, his photographs and achievements were celebrated at the Universal Exhibition. Nadar possessed curiosity, industry, warmth, optimism, entrepreneurialism, and, as such, was a prototype of the nineteenth-century Parisian.

See alsoDaguerre, Louis; Daumier, Honoré; Impressionism; Photography.


Baldwin, Gordon, and Judith Keller. Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York: Photography and Fame. Los Angeles, 1999.

Gosling, Nigel. Nadar. New York, 1976.

Hambourg, Maria Morris, Françoise Heilbrun and Philippe Néagu. Nadar. New York, 1995.

Néagu, Philippe, and Jean-Jacques Poulet-Allamagny, eds. Nadar. 2 vols. Paris, 1979.

Deirdre Donohue