Perhaps you’ve heard of Nadar, an industrious, yet chaotic, bon vivant who lived in Paris at the end of the 19th century. I had not until writing about the life of Gustave Doré, a brilliant illustrator whose career was launched, in part, through Nadar’s promotional efforts. His name popped up again in a biography of Jules Verne. Nadar’s forays into hot air ballooning inspired Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Nadar’s unusual pseudonym later caught my eye when I learned that he, along with the impressionist Manet, were the only close friends to attend Charles Baudelaire’s funeral. And, that it was Nadar who, in 1885, took the final photograph of Victor Hugo lying on his deathbed. Indeed, Nadar seems to have touched the lives of everybody who was anybody in late 19th-century France.
The Life of a Bohemian
Nadar, whose given name was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, was born in 1820 to free-thinking, unwed parents. He grew up in Paris where he received a conventional middle-class education. By the age of 18, however, he was financially struggling. With his father’s health in steep decline and the family’s printing business shuttered, the young Tournachon abandoned his medical studies in order to support his parents and younger brother. As the family breadwinner, he channeled his energies into journalism, mainly writing theatrical reviews, but found his earnings were barely enough to keep from starving.
Fortuitously, he was in good company as he quickly joined ranks with other young struggling writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers. This aspiring band of bohemian brothers challenged each other’s ideas, shared their dilapidated dwellings, and celebrated occasional windfalls with copious rounds of absinthe. By the age of 21, Tournachon was using the name, Nadar, a pseudonym that had gradually evolved from a playful word game akin to pig-latin. He later wrote that during this early period of adulthood he tried working as a clerk, salesman, poacher, smuggler, sculptor, secretary, and peddler of pipes made from roots pulled from the Bois de Boulogne.
During his 20s, Nadar continued to write and made several false starts at becoming a publisher. Somehow, with each new venture, he was able to find willing backers that would invest their small fortunes, often with no guarantee of return. Despite his capitalistic instincts, Nadar had inherited his parents’ distrust of authority. He regularly contributed editorial content to left-wing journals. This included satirical cartoons as well as commentaries. Little by little, his reputation as a talented caricaturist began to grow.
In 1852, Nadar embarked upon one of his most ambitious projects, a series of 4 colossal lithographs, featuring caricatures for more than 1000 cultural celebrities of the day. Each plate would contain roughly 250 characters, devoted by turns first to writers, then actors, artists, and lastly musicians. Portraits of celebrities and members of high society were popular at the time. Many newspapers devoted pages to their display and the citizens of Paris flocked to exhibitions where walls were lined with hundreds of contemporary portrayals. The thrill of recognizing a face or setting left spectators feeling as if they were sharing in the lifestyle of the elite. Thusly, Nadar’s pictorial assemblage of luminaries was a fitting, while formidable, undertaking.
Given the monumental nature of the project and the fact that existing laws prevented anyone from being caricatured without first obtaining their written permission, the endeavor was too large for one man. Again with the financial support of a close friend, Nadar enlisted a team of assistants. It took him two years to complete the first plate, known as Nadar’s Pantheon. Many of the portraits were drawn from actual sittings in Nadar’s studio. However, this was frequently not possible. To complete his sketch of the exiled Victor Hugo, Nadar traveled to Jersey. Other artists also contributed to the project but more than half of the caricatures were done by Nadar.
Once the portraits were assembled, each individual was engraved onto an oversized lithographic stone. In order to squeeze them all in, Nadar arranged the playful figures into a long and winding queue.
The Ladies of the Club
Not surprisingly, Nadar’s illustrious processional is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Of the 250 figures, only 11 are women. What’s remarkable, however, is that Nadar reserved the position of honor for his female friend George Sand. Sand’s bust resides on a pedestal, elevated above the long serpentine of jostling eccentrics. Despite Nadar’s eloquent pleading in a personalized request, Sand refused to sit for her portrait. Instead, after weeks of delay, she had her private secretary and portraitist, Alexandre Manceau, send Nadar a terse missive. The note gave Nadar permission to include Sand in the work and suggested he model his portrayal on one of Manceau’s engravings of Sand’s face.
So, George Sand accounts for 1 of the women in the line-up. Look closely and you will find 9 others crowded together. Unlike their male counterparts, only the women’s busts appear on the sheet. Their marble heads are aligned on a plank that rests on the balding crown of Ernest Legouvé. Legouvé was a dramatist, poet, moralist, and staunch defender of women’s rights. The 11th female, and the only one to appear in the flesh, is standing directly behind Legouvé. Her head appears over his right shoulder. It’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
An Imprint for Posterity
As for Nadar, his self-portrait is the only seated figure in the scene. He is leaning against a large boulder, his expression fixed with a wide-eyed trance as if giddy from exhaustion. Directly in front of the enterprising creator is a signboard that reads:
« Au Monsieur que je regrette assurément d’avance de ne pas connaitre et qui le 2e jour de la 3e lune de l’an 3607 courra les ventes comme un chien perdu pour acheter à prix d’or cet exemplaire devenu introuvable et dont il ne pourra se passer pour son grand travail sur les figures historiques du xixe siècle. »
“To the Gentleman whom I assuredly regret in advance to not knowing and who on the 2nd day of the 3rd moon in the year 3607 will run like a lost dog to the auction house to pay a small fortune for this exceedingly rare copy which he can not pass up due to its grand rendering of the historical figures of the 19th century.”
Whether the project was successful is up for debate. It certainly fell far below Nadar’s lofty expectations. Financially, it was a flop. Only 150 sheets were pre-ordered and in the first 6 months of production, roughly 400 more were added to that number. By the time all contributions and materials were paid for, there was no money left to continue the series. The critics, however, loved it. Personally for Nadar, the Pantheon was a triumph that catapulted his notoriety to superstar status.
Turning the Page
For the rest of the 1850s, Nadar continued to work in journalism, contributing to several different publications. He also wrote a memoir and tried his hand at editing. As he jumped from one endeavor to the next, a steady stream of earnings barely kept pace with his exuberant spending habits. As Nadar approached the age of 40, his restless eye fell upon the up-and-coming field of photography. This new science of recording durable images on light-sensitive materials would become his next great passion. The satirical editorialist, who was now known across wide swaths of European society, would go on to earn a reputation as the world’s first great portrait photographer. But that story will have to wait until a future post.