I’ve previously written about Nadar, the colorful French author, artist, and entrepreneur who first made a name for himself in the middle of the 19th-century as a caricaturist. Nadar’s Panthéon is a colossal lithograph containing a long parade of 250 heralded writers of the day. It took Nadar two years to complete the painstaking project. When finished in 1854, critics regarded the Panthéon as a triumph but financially the undertaking was a flop. Never one to be discouraged for long, the enterprising Nadar abandoned his plans to make additional lithographs featuring cultural superstars of the Belle Époque. Instead, he set his sights on the up-and-coming art of photography.
The Lure of Candid Portraiture
While working on the Panthéon, Nadar (whose real name was Félix Tournachon) took pride in knowing his subjects and personally met with most of them. An engaging and lighthearted conversationalist, Nadar appreciated the need to put his subjects at ease in order to capture their subconscious quirks and mannerisms for his exaggerated portrayals. If only the process could be accelerated. As he labored to finish his line-up of literary bigwigs, Nadar became increasingly interested in photography. In 1851, the optician Adolphe Bertsch had come up with a faster way of capturing images on glass plates. Nadar was intrigued by what this new technology might mean for the art of portraiture.
Even before he had completed the Panthéon, Nadar found a banker to back his new portrait studio on one of the grand boulevards of Paris. Nadar also invested 6,000 francs of his new wife’s money in order to purchase a large camera and pay for a dizzying array of incidental expenses. The glamorous, glass-walled atelier was centered in a popular district with theaters, cafés, salons, and other distractions. There, Nadar installed his unemployed brother Adrien who had been trying to make a name for himself as a painter.
Adrien’s photographic artistry quickly blossomed and the nascent studio showed lucrative economic potential. Nadar, who thrived on new, revolutionary ideas rather than the labor that succeeded their undertaking, now saw a field of expression that might eliminate those tasks that drained his spirit dry: editing, proofing, art touch-ups, and production. With photography, he could indulge his penchant for chatting people up and capture their natural expression, in a moment of forgotten self-consciousness, with the click of a shutter.
A Family Business
As business picked up, Adrien pleaded with his older brother to come work with him. It seems Nadar had hoped that Adrien would be able to run the studio on his own. He complained that he had done almost everything to get the business launched, even lending his now-famous pseudonym to the enterprise, and wrangling an exhibition space at the world’s first Exposition Universelle, in 1855. Still busy producing drawings, articles, and a novella of his own, Nadar agreed to lend a hand. After four months of working together, however, the brothers were at each other’s throats.
Nadar decided to move to a more intimate studio in a ground-floor apartment on the rue Saint-Lazare. There he entertained his many famous friends, leading them to the garden in good weather, or to a glass-roofed attic in winter, to sit for his camera. Nadar’s sessions were relaxed and affable—the photographer showering his subject with warmth and levity. The process of committing one’s image to posterity was now a delight and no longer a matter of fixing one’s gaze and posing stiffly.
Nadar’s prestige and exuberant personality began attracting the well-to-do and celebrities of the day who would pay 100 francs for a sitting, while his friends paid far less if anything. Little did anyone comprehend that these early efforts would secure Nadar’s place in history.
A Lasting Legacy
Meanwhile, eager clients continued to make appointments with Adrien, often confused by his new signature “Nadar jeune”. Was this the famous caricaturist whose Panthéon had charmed the critics or an unknown upstart riding on his coattails? Nadar sued Adrien to recover exclusive use of his pseudonym and won. In order to reclaim his position as the only legitimate Nadar, he joined the Société Française de Photographie and showed off his portraits at exhibitions in Paris and Brussels. With the help of his friends in publishing, he continued to receive rave reviews in the press.
With business booming, and his brother’s exodus from the original studio on the Boulevard des Capucines, Nadar found investors to build a multi-story atelier in a recently-vacated building just down the street. He adorned the lavish establishment with a giant reproduction of his signature, a cursive billboard that was illuminated at night.
Over the years, Nadar divided his inexhaustible energies between a wide variety of projects—photography only one among them. In the 1870s, he was joined by his son Paul who adopted the Nadar pseudonym as his last name and eventually took over running the family business. Paul, in turn, left the studio to his daughter Marthe, who ran it until 1948. Thus, for nearly a century, three generations helped cement the Nadar name in the annals of photography. Below is a slideshow, featuring a tiny sampling of the great men and women of the Belle Époque that for a brief moment came under the spell of Nadar’s charm and were immortalized by his cultivating eye.