"The secret of Édouard Baldus"—that was the subject line of an email I received recently. I rolled my eyes. "Right," I said to myself, "the secret of Édouard Baldus." I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Édouard Baldus (1813–1889), the nineteenth-century French photographer of landscape and architecture, and had the enormous pleasure of introducing him to the general public through a beautiful show and catalogue in 1994. Ever since, I've been "Mr. Baldus." Because of the in-depth nature of our research into very specific fields, we curators often become inextricably linked to a particular artist. My predecessor as curator in charge of the Department of Photographs, Maria Morris Hambourg, wrote her dissertation on Eugène Atget and co-curated four exhibitions of his work at MoMA. Although that was thirty years ago, she remains the go-to person for questions about Atget. My colleague Jeff Rosenheim may know more about Walker Evans than just about anyone, and as a result he fields an unending stream of queries about Evans's life and work. When questions about Baldus are sent my way, I often have to go back to my own writing to answer them, and to be honest, there's a part of me that would be perfectly happy to have someone else take on the mantle, carry on the research, and field the inevitable queries.
Baldus was born in the tiny Prussian town of Grünebach and baptized "Eduard" in the parish church of Kirchen, where the pastor provided me with baptismal records and a partial family history when I was doing my research. Before arriving in Paris in 1838, Baldus was said to have served in the Prussian military, to have exhibited paintings in Antwerp, and to have traveled in the United States as an itinerant painter, enjoying success in New York, though I never found evidence to confirm any of that. On various official documents I found, Baldus listed his birthplace as Prussia, Paris, or New York, with dates of either 1813 or 1815. I sent letters to everyone in France with the surname Baldus hoping to find more family history, but never got a response. While Baldus's early history remained hidden to me, I knew that in Paris he was among the pioneers of paper negative photography, enjoying a string of government commissions to photograph historic monuments, the construction of the New Louvre, and the catastrophic floods of 1856. He was also commissioned by captains of industry to document feats of civil engineering along the lines of the Northern Railway and the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée Railroad. He married a Frenchwoman in 1845, had three children, changed the spelling of his name to "Édouard," was naturalized a French citizen, and was awarded the Légion d'honneur. He spent the bulk of his later years perfecting a photogravure process and using it to reproduce and publish his photographs, but he finished his days in bankruptcy and died in 1889. (For a fuller account and examples of his work, see my essay on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.) In short, I felt like I had a pretty complete picture of the life and work of Édouard Baldus.
So you might imagine my wariness when I first saw the email about the "secret" of Baldus, sent by Dr. Peter Lindlein. "I make my living as an international consultant," it began, "and spend some of my time making photographs and some of my money collecting photo books—and I am living near Grünebach." Grünebach! Well, that got my attention. "Thus it may have been only a matter of time before I discovered the work of Édouard Baldus and your fascinating studies," he continued. "But it was by chance that I discovered something more: the secret of Éd(o)uard Baldus's past—or at least a very important and amazingly interesting part of it."
Dr. Lindlein continued: "After his time as a soldier Eduard Baldus lives in Cologne. The life of a soldier is too modest, the pay too meager, and Cologne, a city with seventy thousand inhabitants, offers too many temptations for a country boy standing at the edge of adult life."
Now I was hooked. How did Peter Lindlein know that Baldus was in the Army and that he lived in Cologne, and what sort of temptations did he mean? I kept reading: "Eduard Baldus is 21 years, measures 5 foot 4 inch, is small but robust, Catholic, has dark blond hair, a receding hairline, and a small moustache, big blue eyes and a healthy complexion."
Really? I had seen only two photographs of Baldus, both from the mid-1850s, which showed a bearded, dark-haired man… and I couldn't possibly tell what color his eyes were. Peter Lindlein can tell the rest of the story:
"If this sounds like a police bulletin, it is. Eduard Baldus is wanted throughout the Rhine Province. All of the official gazettes of the Government, in Cologne and Düsseldorf, Aachen and Koblenz, carry the following arrest warrant, dated February 16, 1835:
Warrant of Apprehension. The former bombardier Eduard Baldus, born in Grünebach, in the county Altenkirchen, governorate Koblenz, and most recently residing in Cologne, who is accused of making and distributing forged Cash Notes, evaded the corresponding investigation by escape.
By adding the following description, I ask all police authorities to watch for him, arrest him and bring him before me.
Cologne, 16th of February 1835. Royal Investigative Judge: Ludowigs.
Name, Eduard Baldus; Age 21 years; Size 5 foot 4 inch; Religion Catholic; Hair dark blond; Forehead high; Eyebrows brown; Eyes blue and big; Nose ordinary; Mouth ordinary, but with slightly pouting lips; Moustache brown, (had a small moustache); Chin ordinary; Complexion healthy; Face round and oval, and statue small but robust.
Again, Peter Lindlein: "The young man is having a good time with that counterfeit money. The maximum penalty by Prussian law, which is printed on the notes, namely lifelong penal servitude, does not deter him. However, the laws applicable for the Rhine Province are different, because the Prussian Land Law is not yet introduced there. According to the applicable criminal code, counterfeiting will be punished by the carrying out article 139 of the code—the death penalty. Eduard Baldus escapes with his life in the nick of time; despite a search, the warrant for his arrest remains unfulfilled. Eduard Baldus finally absconds to France and arrives in Paris in 1838. Thus the threatening guillotine does not cut off his head, but cuts him off from his past and roots—once and for all. With this escape from the scaffold begins his new life, his rise and success."
Well, no wonder Baldus was a bit vague about his birth date and birthplace—he was a wanted man! I'd always thought of him as a great photographer but a bit of a bore—an artist who could work for Napoleon III without qualms, not like the lefty republican, Nadar. I knew him as an upright citizen and a single dad raising three children after the death of his wife in 1858, unlike Gustave Le Gray, who stiffed his creditors and skipped out on his family to sail the Mediterranean with Alexandre Dumas. May I confess that it makes me like my man Baldus a bit more to think of him as a young counterfeiter on the lam?
It's discoveries like this that keep me reading my email.
Let me give the final word to Peter Lindlein:
"In Paris, did Baldus ever resort to his old art to improve the modest income of his family? Did he come under pressure when former accomplices came to Paris in the early 1840s? We'll likely never know, but in any case, he never betrayed his secret. He was probably reformed forever by his dramatic escape from the scaffold, as he did not make use of his printing techniques to avoid bankruptcy. However, would there have been the photographer Édouard Baldus without the counterfeiter Eduard Baldus? Although the winding road from Grünebach to Paris ended in poverty—what a life! More exactly: How many lives! Soldier, counterfeiter, emigrant, painter, husband and father, photographer, printer, publisher—and, again and again, inventor, especially of himself."
Malcolm Daniel is curator in charge of the Department of Photographs.
Exhibition Catalogue (1994)
The Photographs of Édouard Baldus
Dr. Lindlein's full article is available at www.lindlein.com/Baldus/EdouardBaldus.htm.
Learn more about the artists mentioned in this article on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: