Charles Nègre (French, 1820-1880)
Le tailleur de pierre, summer 1853
Salt print from a collodion on glass negative
9.9 cm tondo
Stamped "André Jammes" and inscribed "No 32 / FH 23 / A37" by André Jammes in pencil on verso
Trained as a painter, Charles Nègre applied the compositional strategies and sense of formal arrangement he had assimilated in the painting studio of Paul Delaroche to the medium of photography. In 1851, the French writer and art critic Francis Wey would declare that one of Nègre’s genre studies “is no longer a photograph; it is a deliberately organized composition.” In other words, Nègre’s photograph had transcended the typical limitations of the medium to become a true work of art.
The masterful composition Le tailleur de pierre shows Nègre’s approach to genre photography, a subject for which he was renowned. By using soft focus in the background and bright illumination at the center, Nègre draws the eye toward the stonecutter’s gesture, frozen at a precise moment of action. Without using a fraction-of-a-second exposure, the artist created, rather than captured, what a split second would look like as a photograph. In spite of its instantaneous appearance, this is a posed picture, made with a three second exposure.
Even in its diminutive size, this print conveys Nègre’s ambition to argue for photography’s importance in the representation of modern life. Prints from the same negative are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Société Française de Photographie in Paris.