Case Studies

19th-Century Classic

art + science

Early photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880) is a classic example of the combination of art and science in one creative personality. Having studied painting in Paris and exhibited his work for nearly two decades, he was “struck with astonishment” when he first saw daguerrotypes and immediately began experimenting with the chemistry behind photography, the physics and mathematics of optics, and the engineering principles of both camera design and the architecture he photographed. Also an avid writer, in 1851 he eloquently summed up the notion of STEAM.

“Where science ends, art begins,” Nègre wrote. “When the chemist has prepared the sheet, the artist directs the lens and the three torches of observation, feeling and reasoning guide the study of nature; photography invokes effects that make us dream, simple patterns excite us, powerful and bold silhouettes that surprise and frighten us…. We are now convinced that it is less difficult to reproduce than it is to learn to see nature…. Before, the challenge was to replicate nature; today it is to choose from within nature.”

Negre’s statement is pure poetry, describing the creative process and the need for the thoroughly educated artist to use scientific knowledge in making art. His work demonstrates mastery of the science of photography, along with the fine art of composition, subject choice, sensitivity to light and so forth. Negre’s photographs have a magical immediacy that goes beyond craft. In 1854 he wrote, “being a painter myself, I have kept painters in mind by following my personal tastes…wherever I could dispense with architectural precision I have indulged in the picturesque.”

—Roger Mandle, president of Rhode Island School of Design, 1993–2008

photo credit: Charles Nègre, La tailleur de pierre, salt print from a collodion on glass negative, summer 1853 courtesy of Hans P. Kraus, Jr. | New York

Note: Thanks to Larry J. Schaaf, whose brilliant Introduction to the 2013 exhibition catalogue for Charles Nègre (published by and on view at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs in New York) provided the quotes, history of the artist and the inspiration for this piece.

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