Phillips: Photographs

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Gustave Le Gray, ‘Sous-bois au Bas-Bréau, Forêt de Fontainebleau’, 1852, Phillips

From the Catalogue:
Beginning in 1849, Gustave Le Gray began making photographic excursions into Fontainebleau, the famed outdoor studio of the Barbizon School painters. It was around this time that Le Gray made a significant improvement to Talbot’s calotype process; he discovered that coating the paper negative with wax increased its translucence, yielding a more detailed and nuanced print. He patented the process in 1851 and continued to improve upon it as he worked. His photographs of Fontainebleau are some of his first works made with these waxed-paper negatives.

Le Gray took the photograph offered here in Bas-Bréau, an old-growth region of Fontainebleau that was home to many of the forest’s oldest and grandest oak trees. Unlike the other more actively maintained areas of Fontainebleau, Bas-Bréau had been allowed to grow wild, and its verdant disarray served as inspiration to painters such as Jean-Baptist-Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau.

Le Gray’s many innovations in photography were aided by his extensive practical knowledge of chemistry, and he used different toning agents to enhance his prints. A contemporary account made by a visitor to Le Gray’s studio describes prints with hues ranging from “velvety blue-green” to “warm brown bistre” (The Art of French Calotype., p. 203). The photograph offered here may owe its tonal complexity to Le Gray’s chemical experimentation.

In The Art of French Calotype, André Jammes and Eugenia Parry Janis write that Le Gray’s early views of Fontainebleau are “among the finest and most cherished photographs of the nineteenth century. . . The influence of Le Gray’s trees with the tree studies by Marville, Nègre, Le Secq, Aguado, Regnault and others, on theories of naturalism in landscape painting at mid-century is of overwhelming significance” (p. 203).

Another print of this image is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
Courtesy of Phillips

Aubenas, Gustave Le Gray 1820-1884, pl. 1

Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, Indiana, 1991

About Gustave Le Gray

Boldly asserting in 1850 that photography’s future would lie on paper, Gustave Le Gray refined the emerging French method of developing photographs from paper negatives, using thinner paper and coating it with wax to produce crisper images. Le Gray set out to establish photography’s place among the fine arts and largely achieved that goal with his celebrated portraits and photographs of Paris streetscapes and the Fontainebleau Forest. Although he was trained as a painter, Le Gray distinguished himself as a photographer by recognizing the medium as an independent art form with a unique set of rules that did not necessarily derive from painting. Combining the collodion-on-glass and paper negative processes, he created dynamic images of waves crashing on the shore that many consider to have inspired Claude Monet to paint along the Normandy coast.

French, 1820-1884, Villier-le-Bel, France, based in Cairo, Egypt