What was his century in the evolution of Western civilization? The European Enlightenment died out in a general political and structural cacophony of which France is the symbol (royalty by divine right, revolution, consulate, empire, restoration and empire again). For many, the lights went out for good in 1815, with the end of the First Empire. Philosophical, intellectual, esoteric, sociological, naturalist libertinism ends with the installation of rigor and organization at all levels of the Western thoughts. It was the time of the birth of Louis Pasteur, Alexis de Tocqueville, Prosper Mérimée, Evariste Galois, Claude Bernard, Edmond Becquerel, Marcelin Berthelot, Louis Bréguet and many other inventors of this so-called industrial era which ended in the “glorious thirties” at the end of the twentieth century. Our Charles Nègre was part of this generation, he was of their age group, he followed this wide ranging open to curiosity. Deduction and understanding by the mind of the various environmental systems was required. This form of learning which will see its apotheosis in the first two thirds of the 1900s with the so-called “Jules Ferry” school.
It is important to immerse yourself in this context in order to understand the journey and the works left to posterity by Charles Nègre. In this period where logic and the association of ideas predominate, career plans were adapted to everyday realities and potential industrial openings.
Our Charles seems to be good at drawing and had a certain sensitivity, so he will be sent to the Beaux Arts in Paris, and then in any case the range of knowledge acquired will not be lost; even if he had to return to the family confectionery which was also transformed into an industry. This will not be the case, the young prodigy leaves School with an artistic know-how of an excellent level acquired in renowned workshops. In addition, he maintained a great curiosity for this new technology which evolved rapidly and in all directions, starting 1840: heliography.
Not only will Charles Nègre prove to be a remarkable photographer far ahead of his time and a great precursor; but, he will also be the visionary who will quickly assimilate, in the spirit of his century and of its inventors, the importance of ensuring quality in the work carried out and sustainability for the future. The thirst for knowledge, the impatience to find solutions prevail. Our artist, with the very sure touch of the brush and the realization of avant-garde photographs, will return to take lessons at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts to complete his research. He will strive to master the techniques of engraving for the printing of heliography of which he will manage to define and realize the operational foundations.
Modern photography owes a lot to this multifaceted genius who was the friend of Ingres and of the great artists of his time, just as he was that of Becquerel, whose physics research and lessons he followed.
Charles Nègre is one of the orchestral men of modern universal culture and the precursor of our current Photography in its various aspects and its many uses.