The Dramatic Life of Gustave Le Gray

Gustave Le Gray’s biography reads like a story in a novel. Clandestine love, bankruptcy, abandonment and an odyssey to the East have made Le Gray a legendary figure in the history of photography. Born on the 30th of August 1829 in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d’Oise, into a petit-bourgeois family, Le Gray was encouraged by his parents to be a solicitor’s clerk, but from a young age he aspired to be an artist. He made frequent visits to the Louvre and the print rooms at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France before joining the studio of painter, Paul Delaroche. Le Gray’s career as a painter met with some success and he exhibited at the salon. (He painted throughout his career but none of his canvases survive.) When an ill-fated initiation resulted in a student’s death, Delaroche was forced to close his studio and Le Gray left Paris, travelling on foot to Rome, via the Swiss Alps. In Rome Le Gray met and married Palmira Maddalena Gertrude Leonardi, the daughter of the family with whom he was lodging. The artist asked for special dispensation from the Church to wave the three-week banns period on account of supposedly having to return to business in Paris. However, he remained in Rome for a year after the wedding. The reasons for the hasty wedding are unclear but some accounts suggest a clandestine affair between Le Gray and Palmira, his ‘laundress’, that, when discovered by her family, led to a forced marriage. Le Gray became aware of photography in the 1840s when he sat for portraits by Henri Le Secq and began making daguerreotypes when the craze took off in Paris. Returning to Paris with Palmira, he set up a grand studio on the Boulevard des Capucines. However, he soon became an advocate of the paper negative process and his first works on paper date from 1848. He pioneered the waxed paper process, the first negative material with a surface coated light sensitive layer on a flexible support. This development in photographic practices left an indelible mark on the direction of twentieth century photography. Although he ran a successful portrait studio, teaching became Le Gray’s main source of income and he contributed to the expansion of the profession in the city, mentoring many photographers who would go on to become eminent. He became known and respected for his technical prowess and artistic vision and in 1851 he was one of the five French photographers hired for the Missions Héliographiques, a mammoth project to document French monuments and buildings. The same year, he was involved in the foundation of the Société Héliographique, thought to be the first photographic organisation in the world.

Having become one of the most prestigious photographers working in Paris, Le Gray became the official photographer of Napoleon III. He photographed the Empress Eugenie and travelled to the military camp at Chalons to document the might of the imperial army. Between 1856 and 1858 Le Gray produced some of his best-known photographs of seascapes, taken along the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. However, whilst undertaking these personal projects, he neglected his portrait studio and his finances began to spiral out of control. In 1860 his creditors called in a solicitor to liquidate his studio and he was declared bankrupt. Leaving his wife and children, he left Paris to flee debtor’s jail and went to undertake a journey around the Mediterranean with the writer Alexandre Dumas. Embarking on a literary odyssey on board his schooner, Emma, Dumas took Le Gray with him to illustrate the journey. Mooring in Sicily, Le Gray found himself in the midst of a revolution, met and photographed Giuseppe Garibaldi, and photographed the ruined city of Palermo.

Parting ways with Dumas, he continued on to Lebanon and Syria, where he photographed the French army in 1861. He spent time in Alexandria, all the while out of contact with his family and studio in Paris, which had been taken over by a competitor. Le Gray eventually settled in Cairo, where he would remain for two decades, surviving on the money he made from teaching drawing and keeping a small photography shop. Details of the last fifteen years of Le Gray’s life in Cairo are vague but contemporary documents show that he continued to incur local debts and in 1883, at the age of sixty-two, had a son with a nineteen-year-old woman, Anaïs Candounia. Le Gray died on the 29th of July, 1884 in Cairo, with Anaïs at his side, in a state of destitution. The ‘Death-Date Inventory’ drawn up after his death lists a strange assortment of personal property devoid of furnishings and day-to-day objects but full of drawings, watercolours, photographs, tripods and camera obscuras. The only books found by his bedside were dictionaries and chemistry manuals.


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