Widely regarded as the finest collection of photographs in private hands, the Gilman Paper Company Collection has played a central role in establishing photography's historical canon and has long set the standard for connoisseurship in this field. Recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, the Gilman Collection comprises more than 8,500 photographs, including exceptional depth and richness in early French, British, and American photography, as well as masterpieces from the turn-of-the-century and modernist periods. This installation of nineteenth-century French photographs highlights one of the collection's great strengths and features forty rare and beautiful photographs by Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Édouard Baldus, Nadar, and Eugène Atget, among many others.
The earliest works reveal the remarkable beauty and technical mastery that French photographers—many of them trained as painters—achieved a mere decade after the invention of the medium. Landscapes suffused with deep swathes of evocative shadow, psychologically revealing portraits, elegantly seductive studies of the nude, and Romantic representations of France's ancient and medieval past demonstrate early photography's links to the painting and print traditions, as well as the ways in which the unique character and capacity of photography set its productions apart from all art that had come before. Together these works trace the rapid development of photography from the humble and intimate creations of gentlemen amateurs to ambitious artistic expressions of Second Empire grandeur.
Among the highlights are Gustave Le Gray's light-dappled Forest of Fontainebleau (ca. 1856) and dramatic seascape Mediterranean Sea at Sète (1856–59); Nadar's lively portrait of Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870); photographs by Edouard Baldus, including his proto-Impressionist Group at the Chateau de la Faloise of 1857; views of medieval architecture by Le Gray and Henri Le Secq, including the latter's Wooden Staircase at Chartres (1852); and a suite of photographs made in Egypt by Félix Teynard, John Beasley Greene, Maxime Du Camp, and Ernst Benecke. The exhibition concludes with a selection of works demonstrating photography's broad reach by the end of the nineteenth century, encompassing an astronomer's record of the stars, police mug shots, and architects' construction views.