go to HOME


  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

A somewhat lengthy "March" item today: The following text appeared in "The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art." (Philadelphia; Whole Number-Vol. XXXV [Vol. VII-New Series,] March 1839, pp. 341-3) From the Spectator. SELF-OPERATING PROCESSES OF FINE ART. The Daguerotype. An invention has recently been made public in Paris that seems more like some marvel of a fairy tale or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality: it amounts to nothing less than making light produce permanent pictures, and engrave them at the same time, in the course of a few minutes. The thing seems incredible, and, but for indisputable evidence, we should not at first hearing believe it; it is, however, a fact: the process and its results have been witnessed by M. Arago, who reported upon its merits to the Academie des Sciences. To think of Nature herself reflecting her own face, though but as "in a glass, darkly," and engraving it too, that we may have copies of it! This looks like superseding Art altogether; for what painter can hope to contend with Nature in accuracy or rapidity of production? But Nature is only become the handmaid to Art, not her mistress. Painters need not despair; their labours will be as much in request as ever, but in a higher field: the finer qualities of taste and invention will be called into action more powerfully; and the mechanical process will be only abridged and rendered more perfect. What chemistry is to manufactures and the useful arts, this discovery will be to the fine art; improving and facilitating the production, and lessening the labour of the producer; not superseding his skill, but assisting and stimulating it. The following particulars of this beautiful and extraordinary invention are gleaned principally from fragments of the report of M. Arago, quoted in the communications of the foreign correspondents of the Athenaeum and the Literary Gazette, and partly from private information. The apparatus consists of a camera obscura with the superaddition of an engraving power: in lieu of the white disc on which the moving picture of external objects is reflected by the rays of light, a metal plate is substituted, covered with a particular coating, on which the light forms the image by its action thereon. M. Daguerre, the inventor, "has found a substance," says M. Arago, "more sensible to light than the chlorure of silver, which is altered in an inverse manner-that is to say, it leaves on the several parts of the plate, corresponding to the several parts of the object, dark tints for the shadowy, half-tints for the light parts, and no tint whatever for the tints that are luminous." When this action of the light on the different parts of the plate has produced the desired effect, it is arrested at once by a particular process, and the plate may be exposed to the full light of day without undergoing any change. The appearance of the monochrome picture has been compared to mezzotint engravings, deep-toned aquatint, or the etchings of Rembrandt. The length of time required for the process varies with state of the atmosphere and the quality of the light; moonlight is slower in its operation than sunlight; and on a dark day the engraving-or, to speak more correctly, the etching-requires a longer time; but twenty minutes seems to be the maximum under unfavourable circumstances: in ordinary weather eight or ten minutes is the average, "but under a pure sky like that of Egypt," says M. Arago, "perhaps one minute might suffice to execute the most complex design." As it is the continued stream of light that acts upon the metal, fixed objects only can be delineated: "the foliage of trees," again to quote M. Arago, "from its always being more or less agitated by the air, is often but imperfectly represented. In one of the views, a horse is faithfully portrayed, except the head, which the animal had never ceased moving: in another, a decrotteur (shoe-black), all but the arms which were never still." The slight or occasional motion of objects does not, however, invalidate the process; for, says the Athenaeum correspondent, "in one view of the Boulevard du Temple, taken from M. Daguerre's own residence, a coach and horses are introduced with the most literal and lineal exactness." But it is obvious that the views produced by these means will only be pictures of still-life, inanimate objects, buildings, mountains, rocks, and tracts of country, under settled aspects of the atmosphere, whether it be the bright glare of noon, the even-down pour of rain, or the cold moonlight, will be pictured with an accuracy of form and perspective, a minuteness of detail, and a force and breadth of light and shade, that artists may imitate but cannot equal. The precision and exactness of the effect of the pictures may be judged of from these facts: the same bas-relief in plaster and in marble are differently represented, so that you can perceive which is the image of the plaster and which of the marble; you may almost tell the time of the day in the out-door scenes. Three views of the Luxor Obelisk were taken, one in the morning, one at noon, and the other in the evening, and the effect of the morning light is distinctly discernible from that of the evening, though the sun's altitude, and consequently the length of the shadows, are the same in both. But what the lifeless, monotonous, and cold reflections of the camera, when applied to motionless objects are to the living reality, with all its magic harmonies of colour, will be the monochromes produced by the graphic camera to the glowing pictures which by the combined operation of skill and genius, arrest and fix on the canvas the evanescent beauties and ever-varying forms of animated nature as seen through the medium of the painter's imagination. We have not seen one impression of these light-created monochromes, but we venture to predict that they will present an appearance of shadowy insubstantiality combined with the rigidity and fixedness of a model, which will, after the first blush of novelty, fall upon the eye, and render them only valuable as models for the painter's use: as it is, they require his touch to vivify, and, in some instances, to complete them. The reflection of a head in the camera lucida looks like an exquisite miniature in wax-work; and sketches taken with the camera have a fixedness peculiarly unpleasant; because they are deprived of the ethereal medium of the atmosphere, the want of which is so sensibly felt in the pictures of some clever but mechanical-minded painters. We make these remarks not to disparage the value of a discovery the most remarkable in the history of art, nor, assuredly, to depreciate the ingenuity and perseverance of the inventor; but for the twofold purpose of calming the apprehensions of the more humble class of artists, who may fancy that their occupation's gone, and of preparing our readers not to expect the beauties of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro in the engravings produced by the Daguerotype. The process is simple, and readily available to all persons; and the machine is so compact, that M. Daguerre has stood upon the bridges of Paris using it without attracting much notice from the passengers. Its utility to travellers, in delineating any curious objects of architecture, machinery, costume, and furniture, is at once apparent. The influence of this invention on painting will be very great, and (we think) beneficial also: the increased exactitude of delineation of living forms and moving objects: pictures will become more true and more animated, for every artist will be eager to escape the reproach of a mere copyist of the Daguereotype. We hail this important discovery, therefore, as one equally valuable to art as the power-loom and steam- engine to manufactures, and the drill and steam-plough to agriculture. M. Daguerre is well known as the collaborateur of M. Bouton in the production of the beautiful illusory pictures of the Diorama; and it was in the course of his experiments in producing their effects of light and shade, that he made the wonderful discovery he as matured with such complete success. It has occupied his attention during fifteen years, and its progress to perfection has been very gradual; owing principally, we understand, to the difficulty of procuring such an amalagam of metal as would be operated on by the rays to remain for a few seconds, then he was enabled to retain them for half a minute, next for a minute, and so on until a few years ago he fixed them for ten minutes. "The earlier sketches, or reflections rather," says the Athenaeum, "which he made some four years since, have a slight degree of haziness: this defect he has now entirely overcome." M. Daguerre's pursuit of this discovery has been the talk of the ateliers in Paris for several years; but no artist having seen any results, it was regarded as a delusion, like the search for the philosopher's stone, or perpetual motion; and the indefatigable inventor, who neglected his painting and looked more like a blacksmith than an artist, was compared to the alchemists of old: he may now turn the laugh against the incredulous. It is said that he has offered his invention to the French Government for 300,000 francs; and, pending the result of the negotiation, he does not of course make his secret known. He has, however, an agent in London who is receiving subscriptions for the machine. Contemporaneous with this chemical process of picturing and engraving, other self-acting machines of mechanical operation have been invented, and by Frenchmen also, that may be opportunely mentioned here. The process of M. Collas for medallic engraving... (Remaining three paragraphs not transcribed; no content related to the daguerreotype. Original errors of spelling/grammar maintained, including the spelling of "daguerotype." --G.E.) -------------------------------------------------------------- 03-23-97

Return to: DagNews