Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884)
"Le Hêtre, Fontainebleau", early 1850s
Albumen or coated salt print from a waxed paper negative
20.0 x 27.2 cm mounted on 41.7 x 56.8 cm paper
Numbered "721" in the negative. Photographer's red signature stamp. Titled with "No 721" in pencil, and "721" in ink, with photographer's oval blindstamp on the mount
By the late 1840s Le Gray had become an innovator of photographic processes, developing the waxed paper negative around 1848. Saturating the paper with beeswax and light-sensitive chemicals made the image sharper than that resulting from the paper negative process devised by Talbot beginning in the 1830s. The waxed paper of Le Gray’s process could be prepared in advance and developed days after exposure allowing photographers to minimize the quantity of equipment in the field.
In 1849, Le Gray traveled to Fontainebleau to photograph the forest. By that time, the forest of Fontainebleau had already hosted several important landscape painters such as Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau who produce oil sketches en plein air. Train service from Paris, established in 1849, also brought thousands of metropolitan visitors who strolled through the various regions of the forest which included rugged landscapes of boulders and sand, thick oak forests, and shaded birch groves. Le Gray sought out the most technically challenging subjects for his photographs, concentrating on rocks and trees bathed in rapidly shifting light that was difficult to capture with long exposures. Masterpieces of light and shadow, Le Gray's pictures of Fontainebleau are remarkable technical achievements and are considered some of the most artistic photographs made in the mid-nineteenth century.