February 12: Inconnu

Date #12February 12: The reliance by some painters on photographs as ‘aide-memoire’ or more honestly, as direct source material, remains to be better known.

Today, in 1857, Eugène Atget was born. Soon, at age seven, he was an orphan, and in one account was raised by his grandparents and given the minimum of schooling. After serving as a merchant seaman and working as an actor in parts as a villain or traitor hampered by a chronic throat affliction, it was not until his forties that he discovered photography, and not long after, over his studio door in Paris he set his shingle ‘Documents pour Artistes’. That is significant; he regarded his work as being in the service of artists, but not itself art, and his images were ‘documents’.

Well known is his embarrassment over the use by the Surrealists of his photography. La Révolution Surréaliste, issue number 7 (15 June 1926) reproduced a print showing a group gathered in front of the fence around the Colonne de Juillet at the centre of the Place de la Bastille peering through various devices, or through their bare fingers.

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 8.59.17 pm
Eugène Atget (1912) Pendant l’éclipse, Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print 16.3 x 21.9 cm. MoMA, Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden

Atget had given his picture the descriptive title Pendant l’éclipse – Avril 1912, that is, ‘During the (total solar) eclipse of April 1912. Man Ray, who purchased the print from him remembered him insisting; “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply are documents I make”. Since 1922, Man Ray had resided at 31 rue Campagne-Premiere in Montparnasse, 100 metres from Atget who had lived at 17b since 1899, where he made his contact prints from his 8,500 glass plate negatives, 18 by 24 centimetres in size made with an ancient view camera that was nevertheless well suited to architectural subjects as it was equipped with a rising front that kept straight the vertical forms. As his eclipse picture appeared on the cover of the surrealist art journal however, it was re-captioned satirically Les Dernières Conversions (‘The Last Conversions’) as a poke at blind religious faith. Thus was the then 69-year-old Atget’s ‘document’ put to use by artists, but by those of a new generation 30 years younger, and for purposes quite unexpected by him.

You all know this story and recognise the image, and I think enough has been written about the Atget myth to make this post superfluous. However, there is one thing that puzzles me; that while he announced his images as being intended for artists – how were they used, and who used them? Has anyone delved into this question? Is there an academic paper that has been written that my searches cannot uncover? Where are the painted, drawn or engraved copies of his pictorial ‘documents’, or any artwork inspired by it? The puzzle has occupied me for a day and a half and I am only a little closer to solving it.

Fortunately, there are some leads. Atget kept a little black book—his Répertoire—now in the MoMA, but still not available online, in which he recorded the names and addresses of 460 clients. Contrary to the persistent myth that he was an unknown, and far from being a ‘tramp’ only late ‘discovered’ by the avant-garde surrealists, Atget was famous amongst his contemporaries who were architects, interior decorators, builders and their artisans skilled in ironwork, wood panelling, door knockers, also painters, engravers, illustrators, and set designers, jewellers Rene Lalique and Weller, antiquarians and historians, well-known authors, editors, publishers Armand Colin and Hachette, professors, including the many who donated their own collections of his photographs to institutions.

His address book includes contacts at publications, such as L’Illustration, la Revue hebdomadaire, Les Annales politiques et litteraires, and l’Art et des artistes, and as Alain Fourquier‘s (1938–2010) exhaustive research has discovered, when Atget’s Pendant l’éclipse was published in la Revolution surrealiste in 1926, he had, since 1900, 182 reproductions of 158 images in 29 publications and had sold, between 1898 and 1927, sometimes more than 1000 pictures a year to public institutions including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Musée de Sculpture Comparé, École des Beaux-Arts, the Directorate of Fine Arts and others. Inconnu? À peine!

Berenice Abbott worked in his darkroom and started to collect his work, later promoting it in America. She was introduced to him by the Surrealists, and when in 1926 they appropriated his photograph for their magazine, he was at the end of his life. No doubt he was as sad and crestfallen as he looks in Abbott’s famous portrait. In June of that year of the eclipse, Atget’s longtime companion and assistant, Valentine, died. Atget’s health steadily declined until he too passed away on August 4th, 1927.



So to the paintings, based on his pictures. Among his list of clients are painters whose names are recognisable a century later; Andre Derain, Foujita, Maurice Utrillo, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque,  not to mention several others who added his work to their own collections indirectly, including Picasso and Dali.

The use by Maurice Utrillo of monochrome photographs as ‘sketches’ for his colourful paintings is quite apparent in the existence of a number of postcards (below) of exactly the same point of view, and with the same cropping, as his final oils on canvas. The colour is Utrillo’s, but the framework is the photographer’s. Utrillo has expanded the edge of the frame to the left to allow the eye room to enter the view, but otherwise the perspective and details of the postcard are followed precisely, down to a rear view of two figures that appear in the postcard which are retained while the more distracting pedestrians are left out.




It is a little more difficult to trace Atget photographs that were used by Utrillo, though the pair below is representative. Though the painter lightens the deep shadows on buildings to the right, the perspective remains the same except for the slight adjustment of the rim of the smaller, foreground dome of Sacre Coeur. It is his cropping of the latter atop the cupola (which in the photograph is caused by the edge of the image circle being cut into by Atget’s rising front on his view camera) and the replication of the shadows on street and footpath, that confirm that this is a copy of Atget’s image. Utrillo has taken some artistic licence with the buildings at right and left, once again for aesthetic reasons. One is tempted to believe that the canvas on the easel in the photograph is Utrillo’s, but the format is different, and as far as is known, Atget did not take his clients in tow when making his photographs. The dates for photograph and painting are very close, both possibly being made in the same year, 1926. 


Atget made another view from the same position, around noon in winter and only a few minutes earlier or later judging by the shadows, but positioned closer to the basilica for a landscape format image in which the clips of his glass plate holder protrude into the sky. The image, like all of his photographs, is atmospheric, because of the outmoded, uncoated lens and  that Atget persisted in using all his life, and his idiosyncratic processing and contact prints of his the orthochromatic glass plates, caused halation of the highlights so that structures and the branches of trees melt into the sky. Originally Atget had used a collodion paper that he sensitised himself with a  thin, shiny, highly reticulated surface which faded quickly. Fortunately he switched to a pre-sensitized albumen paper on Rives BFK no. 74. Maria Morris Hambourg notes that this is the only paper Atget used between 1900 and 1915. Then during and just after WW1 and until the end of his life he used a gelatin silver printing out paper or two types of matte albumen paper, noted by Hambourg for their “velvety surface.”  The lens however was sharp enough, and his 18 × 24 cm negatives large enough to allow him to produce enlargements of details of doorknockers and architectural mouldings for his clients.

Montmartre___Rue_du_Chevalier_[...]Atget_Eugène_btv1b10519854b_1André Derain is listed as a client in the Repertoire, and though he used a camera himself he also employed Atget photographs to assist his artmaking, as was confirmed when his collection of the photographer’s work was discovered in 2016 by his great-niece in a box containing 47 prints with an estimated value of 700,000 euros. Here is his engraving of the Pont Neuf that closely follows the composition and details of an Atget photograph. The arches and grates in the foreground seem to have inspired Derain’s additional of a river god to an otherwise close transcription of the interior of the original.



Berenice Abbott promoted Atget to the status of Artist he now enjoys, if he can, posthumously. However he never made such a claim for himself and in fact actively discouraged it. Atget’s pictures are beautiful, but photography does not have to be art to be wonderful. His large format photography leaves posterity with valuable and precise ‘documents’ of ‘Ancient Paris’ and his intention was to assist other artists, not to become one. Just how his graphic and evocative records were used by those artists and craftsman is an investigation still to be made, but made too late, because that was his legacy.

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