Gustave Le Gray: Poetry in Photography

Gustave Le Gray’s Brig on the Water, 1856, also known as Sea and Sky, caused a sensation when it was first revealed to the public. After it was first officially exhibited in 1857, one reviewer in the Journal of the Photographic Society wrote:

“We stop with astonishment before M. Le Gray’s Sea and Sky, the most successful seizure of water and cloud yet attempted. The effect is the simplest conceivable. There is a plain, unbroken prairie of open sea, lined and rippled with myriad smiling trails of minute undulations, dark and sombrous and profoundly calm, over the dead below – smooth as a tombstone.”

In the December of the previous year, London based photographic suppliers Murray and Heath placed the following advertisement in the same journal: “Le Gray’s famous picture of sea and clouds, admitted to be the finest photograph yet produced. Price 16s. 800 copies subscribed for in two months. Every photographer should order a copy.” Whether or not the figure was exaggerated, both the rapturous reviews and high number of sales serve to illustrate the reaction of the photographic community to this now iconic image by Le Gray. It is also interesting to note that despite the large quantity sold at the time, in the Getty Museum catalogue published nearly 150 years later Sylvie Aubenas writes that only 16 prints are ‘known’ today – most of which are held by institutions.

Gustave le Gray was a colourful figure who experienced several reversals of fortune, and for a time he enjoyed tremendous celebrity in the nineteenth century art world before dying in abject poverty in Cairo. In the context of the fine art world at the time, Le Gray was one of the few photographers to prove that photography could be respected as a medium with poetic potential. It may have helped that Le Gray was a painter as well as a photographer, having been trained in the studio of Paul Delaroche before going on to exhibit at the Paris Salon. His seascapes, for which he has become best known, appealed to notions of the Romantic and the Sublime and it has been suggested by scholars that they directly influenced the work of painters such as Gustave Courbet and, later, the Impressionists.

However, Le Gray found the greatest renown amongst the vibrant photographic community of scholars, collectors and photographers at the time. This was in part because of his technical mastery of the medium. First exhibited in 1857, Brig on the Water confounded an incredulous public on account of its perfect simultaneous exposure of both sea and sky – a remarkable technical feat at the time that was aided by his mastery of extra sensitive collodion-on-glass negatives. Given the limitations of their equipment and skill, other photographers would have to set their exposure to capture either sea or sky, sacrificing the other in the process. Le Gray’s other seascapes from the period went further, combining two perfectly exposed negatives – one of the sea, another of the sky – together to print a perfectly balanced scene. Further embracing the collodion process Le Gray also captured crashing waves and fast moving boats – subjects that were beyond the limits of the slow shutter speeds generally required at the time. As a result of these innovations, the J Paul Getty Museum refers to Le Gray as “the most important photographer of the nineteenth century.”

With only 16 known prints still in existence, our print is one of the few available to purchase on the open market. The print is in superb condition, with strong tones and crisp detail. A lesser print than ours, in terms of both tonality and condition, fetched $221,000 at Christies in 2016.

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