The Land

When first building up his "Documents for Artists" business, Atget recorded several hundred images of rural scenes and flora for his "landscape documents" series. He continued to make such views intermittently until 1922, when he refocused his attention on the series more than at any time since 1900.

Environs, Amiens, 1898 or before, 2002.73.1

Image: Eugene Atget, Environs, Amiens, 1898 or before

Atget has rightly been considered first and foremost a photographer of Paris and its environs, but many of his earliest images were made in the Somme, a storied agrarian region in northern France, where Atget lived in the late 1880s.

Atget's early photographic efforts were made specifically to serve artists, and photographic images of rural motifs were in high demand. First favored at mid-century by painters associated with the Barbizon school (for example, Charles Daubigny, The Farm, 1855), rustic scenes featuring country roads, village streets, farmyards, ponds, trees, forest views, orchards, and haystacks continued to attract artists' attention through the end of the century. Haystacks, for instance—the dominant motif in this photograph—were the subject of a well-known painting series by Claude Monet in 1890–1891 and featured prominently in other contemporary work, such as Paul Gauguin's Haystacks in Brittany, 1890.

The composition of this photograph is typical of Atget's early work. By capturing a broad swath of land, and keeping it in focus from near to far, Atget is able to convey maximal visual information; the haystacks, the plowed field, the long dirt road, and a farmhouse in the distance (between the first and second haystacks) are all clearly legible. At the same time, the repetitive forms of the haystacks—two of which bookend and balance the composition—and the endless road that draws our eye into the distance suggest the timeless character and seeming limitlessness of the French countryside. Without picturing figures, Atget's landscape manages to convey a gentle, symbiotic relationship between the farmer and the land.

Atget numbered all his negatives, and often, as here, part of the number (in this case 870) is visible in reverse in the photographic print. This image figured among a small group of works purchased by Paris' Musée de sculpture comparée in 1898—the first of Atget's many sales to French public institutions.

Étang de Corot, Ville-d'Avray, 1900–1910, 1995.36.2

Image: Eugene Atget, Etang de Corot, Ville-d'Avray, 1900-1910

Atget made photographs at a pond in Ville d'Avray, ten miles west of Paris, on at least three occasions. While doubtless attracted by its beauty and proximity to the city, Atget was especially drawn to its artistic pedigree. Étang de Corot (literally, Corot's pond) was named in honor of famed landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who had a house nearby and who frequently depicted the pond (see, for example, Ville-d'Avray, c. 1865). Beginning in 1902, Atget made photographs of several places associated with Corot.

This image, made on Atget's first visit to the pond, is especially evocative of Corot's style. The matte albumen printing paper that Atget used here produces images with a soft, velvety texture and cool color range—effects that emulate the light brushwork and silvery atmosphere for which Corot was renowned.

The composition is beautiful in its simplicity. Delicately rendered details, such as the grass and flowers in the foreground and the light on the leaves above, are quietly subsumed into a strong pictorial structure. The near bank and boat are parallel to the picture plane, and openings in the tree canopy at center right provide glimpses of the distant, parallel bank and the sky. Meanwhile, the thin, sinewy trees jutting off at seemingly impossible angles provide a casual, enlivening counterpoint to the overall geometric stability.

Roseaux, Étang du Plessis-Piquet, 1919/1921, 2002_73_14

Image: Eugene Atget, Roseaux, Etang du Plessis-Piquet, 1919/1921

Atget made photographs of several ponds around Paris, including Plessis-Piquet (later renamed Plessis-Robinson). In this work, Atget has managed to retain small-scale detail and texture while skillfully massing tones. We can easily make out innumerable individual reeds amid the dense thicket even as our attention moves from an area of dark, at left, to one dominated by white sky and its reflection in the water, at right.

Nymphéas (Bagatelle), 1925, 2002.73.25
Nymphéas, 1922/1923, 2002.73.21

Image: Eugene Atget, Nympheas (Bagatelle), 1925
Nymphéas (Bagatelle), 1925, 2002.73.25

Atget was attracted to flora throughout his career, but his interest in botanical subjects, including water lilies, redoubled around 1922. The motivation may have been sentimental, but it also could have been practical: Atget may simply have wanted to replenish his photographic stock after he sold many of his negatives and prints to the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, in 1920.

Atget likely made his late photographs of water lilies and lily pads at the Parc de Bagatelle, a garden that forms part of the Bois de Boulogne on Paris' western edge. The city of Paris bought the park in 1905, and the city's conservator of parks and gardens—inspired by the conservator's friend Claude Monet—included the construction of a waterlily basin in the renovations.

Image: Eugene Atget, Nympheas, 1922/1923
Nymphéas, 1922/1923, 2002.73.21

Atget's photographic practice shared some similarities with Monet's work: Atget's repeated return to a subject recalls Monet's series (see Monet's Rouen Cathedral, West Façade or The Japanese Footbridge); many of their river views correspond formally; and both artists evinced a special interest in water lilies. Perhaps Atget, an amateur landscape painter, emulated Monet as he evidently did Corot.

Poirier, 1922–1923, 2002.73.22

Image: Eugene Atget, Poirier, 1922-1923

Poirier is one of four photographs of peartree branches in bloom that Atget made in 1922 and 1923. Throughout his career Atget sought out and photographed plants and trees in Paris' public parks and the nearby countryside.

Photographers who specialized in botanical themes often made such photographs in their studios, where they could exercise control over composition and lighting. But Atget, despite the technical challenge involved, preferred to shoot such motifs in situ, which enabled him to show how plants actually grew. In this instance, Atget isolated a long, sinewy flowering branch and framed its heaviest concentration of leaves, buds, and blooms against the white sky to ensure that it could be seen clearly. At the same time, he used the blurred trees in the background at left to suggest the tree's wider environment.

A group of Atget's plant studies was made available for decorators to use as reference at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris.