Artist: Henri-Jean-Louis Le Secq (French, Paris 1818–1882 Paris)
Medium: Salted paper print from paper negative
Dimensions: 32.8 x 22.1 cm (12 15/16 x 8 11/16 in.)
Credit Line: Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation and Harriette and Noel Levine Gifts, Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. Bequest, and Rogers Fund, 1990
Accession Number: 1990.1130
Trained as a painter in the studios of James Pradier and Paul Delaroche, Le Secq was a learned and cultivated man, a collector of old master prints and medieval ironwork, and a close friend of photographers Charles Nègre and Gustave Le Gray, both of whom he had known in the studio of Delaroche. In 1848, he learned the calotype process from Le Gray, but unlike his teacher-an author, instructor, entrepreneur, and commercial star-Le Secq emerged as an aristocratic amateur whose personal passion for architecture, quiet landscapes, and humble still lifes was served by a more intimate, private, and expressive vision.
As one of the five photographers awarded "Missions Héliographiques" (photographic missions), Le Secq was assigned to regions north and east of Paris, and his extensive documentation of the monuments on his list won critical praise. Henri de Lacretelle wrote in La Lumière that Le Secq had "reconstructed, stone by stone, the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Reims." So pleased with his work was the Commission des Monuments Historiques that they commissioned Le Secq the following year to make more than forty views of Chartres Cathedral, of which this photograph is the most striking.
Seen obliquely from the eye level of a cathedral visitor, the portal sculptures in this photograph appear almost disengaged from their stone support. Their sense of corporeality is enhanced by sharp focus and by their position between shadowed columns and a blur of moving foliage. The slow decay of centuries-old stonework and the fugitive effects of nature thus become the framework within which to contemplate the place of man and of his art in the cycles of time.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the French embraced the Gothic as a central focus of national pride, clinging to Romantic notions of the ruin and the fragment, even while embarking on systematic investigation and restoration of the nation's historic monuments. Neither a full-blown Romantic nor a dry archaeologist, Le Secq applied his artistic training and temperament to photography and to medieval art. He produced a record of Chartres Cathedral both more accurate and more poignant than any yet seen.