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The prodigious Nadar factory


Throughout the second half of the 19th century, they reigned supreme. Felix, Adrien and Paul have helped to elevate photography to the level of art while never ceasing to invent. A large exhibition pays tribute to them at the BNF in Paris.

The gigantic N, in zigzag, and of a red color, invigorating: this is the first letter of the signature of the name Nadar which appears  immense on a picture rail at the entrance of the exhibition.A way of immediately inviting the visitor to see the glory of a family whose signature meant something: a way of doing things, a certain expertise.

Not far from this picture-board, a few meters away, here is the first photograph on display: Nadar’s mother, Thérèse Maillet, photographed around 1854. From the outset we are invited to the gallery of family portraits: Félix (1820-1910), his Brother Adrien (1825-1903) and the son of Felix, Paul (1856-1939). Felix is ​​the first Nadar. It is he who will trade the name Tournachon for this pseudonym that he preferred. Adrien, he will stay Tournachon, but will evolve in the wake of his brother, never far from this huge undertaking built in the early second half of the nineteenth century.


This gallery of portraits already teaches us a lot about these eccentric, aficionados of photography. No doubt it was necessary to have a little madness to embark on such an adventure. At the time, photography was just born, in 1839 if we take as a date the demonstration of François Arago before the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts. And yet … The one who will first be a cartoonist, Felix, will devote his life to photography. We can observe it from the first portraits presented. In an elegant scenography, red walls in places – the color of heart of Felix Nadar – spread images of the family posing in front of the lens. Paul, who is then a child, spends his time in his father’s workshop. Sometimes they all dress – Ernestine, Félix’s wife also – in fashionable disguises at that time: in Easterners, Eskimos … and reveal their sense of humor, their artists mood.

Victor Hugo

If they excel in their own portraits – there are many self-portraits – they also perfectly realize those of others and mainly celebrities. Felix Nadar, the eldest, will make a famous portrait of Charles Baudelaire, hands in his pants and piercing eyes, like an eagle, illuminated. He will take in photography an incalculable number of artists including Alexandre Dumas, Jean-François Millet or Honoré Daumier. Eugène Delacroix, who is also photographed, asks him in a letter to destroy the cliché and pray that nobody will see him. Felix will make the portrait of Victor Hugo on his deathbed. His son, Paul, will say that this is one of his father’s masterpieces done in natural light when a strand of sunlight entered the room where the father of Les Misérables lay.

The Tsar

Felix is ​​not the only one to make beautiful portraits. His brother, Adrien Tournachon, will immortalize a large number of artists including the poet Gérard de Nerval a few days before his suicide. This photograph is famous. We see the author of the chimeras sitting, looking us straight in the eyes with a look full of humanity. Félix’s son, Paul, will photograph famous personalities that are difficult to grasp. The Czar Alexander III about 1891 or the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, in 1912. It is he, too, who will photograph Josephine Baker around 1930 and Stéphane Mallarmé at his table, a pen in hand, around 1897. Paul has his entries at the club of aviation enthusiasts. He will photograph Maryse Rastie, one of the first French aviatrixes.


This quality of portraits is accompanied by a complex enterprise where it was also a question of trading photographs and asked to be open to the world of industry. Part of the exhibition shows the family’s whereabouts when it comes to finding a workshop. First installed in a huge building at 35 boulevard des Capucines in Paris, the Nadar will have to move as the place is expensive and invest a more modest workshop, rue d’Anjou. They can nevertheless count on a solid network of friends and especially and above all in the world of the press. Théophile Gautier, Louis L’Herminier, Hippolyte de Villemessant and Victor Cochinat are all close to Félix Nadar and will also be photographed.


Another area where the Nadar are illustrated is that of the performing arts. Paul Nadar, above all, will make the portrait of Sarah Bernhardt dressed in Pierrot – image that is the poster of the exhibition. The famous actress seems swallowed by her costume and seems melancholy, as if carried away by the sadness of her character. If Paul photographed Sarah Bernhardt in this costume, her father had done it before him: around 1854, while the actress was not yet a celebrity, he immortalized her draped in white, draped in black, in a elegant diptych where is summoned the sensuality of this extraordinary woman. These portraits of the world of the theater is also the preserve of Adrien Tournachon who takes for example in photography the animals and acrobats of the Circus of the Empress in 1861.

Jules Verne

Far from limiting themselves to portraits, the Nadars were also fierce experimenters. They go, especially Paul with the new Kodak camera , try to take “instant” photographs, that is to say to reduce the maximum exposure time. Moreover, they will undertake to photograph the dark places and the night thanks to artificial light. Thus, Félix Nadar will realize a report on the sewers of Paris, another on the Catacombs. But above all Nadar are known for another experiment that will make them inventors of genius who have made history: they are the first to have made aerostatic photography aboard a balloon. Several photographs presented in the exhibition attest, like this view of Paris at 520 meters altitude. This feat will even inspire Jules Verne for his novel De la Terre à la Lune. He wrote to Nadar: “My dear and good friend (…) The sound of your new exploits has reached me in the depths of Brittany. (…) At this moment I have to write a scene in a book about a man warm hearted, who is the best and the most audacious, and, I beg you pardon, it is you that I took for model. ”

Jean-Baptiste Gauvin



The Nadar, a photographic legend
October 16, 2018 to February 3, 2019
François-Mitterrand / Gallery 2
75013 Paris



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