The Forest of Fontainebleau was a center of artistic activity in the mid-19th century, and the village of Barbizon located nearby was home to some of the most important plein-air painters of the day, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau. Eugène Cuvelier also came to Fontainebleau, though he turned his attention to photography. In 1861 Millet wrote to Rousseau from Barbizon:You must have seen Eugène Cuvelier. He showed me some very fine photographs taken in his own country and in the forest. The subjects are chosen with taste, and include some of the finest groups of timber that are about to disappear.1
Cuvelier studied with the two principal painters of the northern French city of Arras, Constant Dutilleux and Xavier Dourlens; he learned photography, however, from his father. Adalbert Cuvelier was a successful oil merchant who retired and devoted the rest of his life to photography. For him, photography was an art, not a trade, and the photographer's "aesthetic sensibility and knowledge must be embodied in his works just as those of a painter are expressed in his paintings."2 Adalbert's few surviving photographs exhibit a technical skill and aesthetic qualities that not only won him the esteem of his fellow painters but also laid the foundation for Eugène's photographic work.
Carrefour de l'Epine dates to the early 1860s, during one of Eugène's many summer visits to Barbizon (he had first visited in 1856 with Dutilleux).3 Like other Barbizon painters, Cuvelier sought to capture the experience of the forest as a place of solitary contemplation, rather than depicting points of interest. Although by this time guidebooks and footpaths had made the forest accessible to tourists, Cuvelier sought out secluded passages such as this scene, which reveals the hidden beauty of the grove of trees that seems to emerge from a lavender mist.
Cuvelier lavished great care on his prints in order to achieve a tonal and textural richness. He frequently used paper negatives and the salted paper process rather than popular collodion negatives and commercially prepared albumen paper. Paper negatives were made of fine writing paper sensitized with silver salts, exposed in a camera, developed, and fixed. The process yielded images with a matte surface and a soft, atmospheric quality resulting from the texture of the paper negative—characteristics that were ideally suited for creating romantic landscapes.
Cuvelier was inspired by the works of pre-impressionist painters who, in turn, were influenced by photographers. For instance, Corot, the premier landscape painter in France, knew Adalbert, who helped to introduce him to the cliché-verre process, which combines elements of printmaking and photography.4 The depiction of light was significant to artists in both fields. Because photographic emulsions at that time were not equally sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, the overexposure of the sky was necessary in order to expose the landscape properly. This overexposure, combined with the grainy texture of the paper negative, produced a loss of definition of solid forms and caused their edges to blur or soften. Areas of light and dark registered as indistinct tonal shapes, evoking an effect rather than a precise image. This characteristic of photography began to appear in painting in the late 1840s.5
After Corot's death, 200 photographs described as different subjects, "after nature, by various artists,"6 were found in his studio. Whether or not some of these photographs were made by Eugène or Adalbert Cuvelier is not known.
(Text by Julia Thompson, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. Letter from Millet to Rousseau, December 31, 1861, quoted in Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (Baltimore, 1974), 92.
2. Letter from Adalbert Cuvelier to Charles Chevalier, quoted in "Publications photographiques," La Lumière (August 12, 1854), 128. Reprinted in Malcolm Daniel, Eugène Cuvelier, Photographer in the Circle of Corot [exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art] (New York, 1996), 7.
3. Eugène Cuvelier's marriage in 1859 to Louise Ganne, the daughter of a Barbizon innkeeper, was a major social event for the community of painters; Corot acted as witness.
4. Clichés-verre are made either by coating a glass plate with printer's ink or photographic emulsion and scratching this coating with an etching needle, or by painting the ink directly onto the glass plate, which is placed on sensitized paper and exposed to light. For more information, see Elizabeth Glassman and Marilyn F. Symmes, Cliché-verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed, A Survey of the Medium from 1839 to the Present [exh. cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts] (Detroit, 1980), 29.
5. For a discussion of the influence of photography on painting see Scharf 1974, 89–92.
6. Alfred Robaut, L'Oeuvre de Corot: Catalogue raisonné et illustré, vol. 4 (Paris, 1905), 264. Reprinted in New York 1996, 14.