Born in 1837 in Arras, a town in northern France that was home to a vibrant circle of landscape painters, Cuvelier began to photograph under the tutelage of his father, Adalbert Cuvelier, an accomplished amateur photographer and landscapist. By 1857, the young Cuvelier was a regular visitor to the Forest of Fontainebleau, where he enjoyed close friendships with the Barbizon painters, including Corot, Daubigny, Millet, and Rousseau. In 1859, Cuvelier married Louise Ganne, daughter of the innkeeper of the venerable Barbizon establishment, the Auberge Ganne. It was after this move to Barbizon and through his daily contact with the forest that Cuvelier’s extraordinary talent as a photographer emerged. Over the next two decades, Cuvelier sustained a passionate engagement with the forest, photographing its diverse topography in all seasons, primarily for his own pleasure.
Made in the Plateau of Belle-Croix, an area of the forest characterized by flat, marshy hollows, Belle-Croix evokes the biological density of this primordial, swampy landscape where riotous tree roots sink into a shimmering, mirrored surface. Slightly overexposing the negative to create high contrast between light and dark masses, Cuvelier achieved a nearly hallucinatory wealth of detail that confuses boundaries between trees and water, ground and sky. The point of view is extraordinary, for it positions the viewer in the midst of this swampy, inchoate muck. This albumen print is striking not only for its subject matter—Cuvelier often chose to make salted paper prints of quieter landscapes—but also for the high-keyed printing, which emphasizes the vibrant tonal contrast and reveals the full extent of Cuvelier’s talent as photographer and as canny observer of nature.