A HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHIC GRAND TOUR
IMPORTANT DAGUERREOTYPES BY
JOSEPH-PHILIBERT GIRAULT DE PRANGEY
Some of the finest architectural and landscape views of the early period were taken by a French amateur, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey...an expert in Arabian architecture [who] in 1842...undertook a long and arduous journey through Italy, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Greece, arriving home two years later with a thousand fine daguerreotypes.
HELMUT AND ALISON GERNSHEIM
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) would appear to have led a life of exceptional privilege. Born into a wealthy, landed family he enjoyed throughout his years the means to live as his whim took him, to pursue single-mindedly his passions and his curiosity. Naturally gifted as an artist and with the further gifts of an enquiring mind and practical determination, he focused on specific cultural pursuits, notably the investigation of architectural history as a route to the greater understanding of civilisations separated by distance and by time from his own.
But perhaps his singular good fortune was as the beneficiary of a favourable confluence of circumstances that allowed him to set out on a voyage of exploration through the eastern Mediterranean in the early 1840s equipped with a new technology capable of recording with dazzling and unprecedented fidelity the wondrous sights he beheld. It is quite impossible for us today -- spoilt children of the age of instant global transmission of photo-imagery -- to even begin to grasp how thrilling was such a journey, and how exciting such a technical prospect as that promised by the daguerreotype.
By the time he undertook his long Mediterranean odyssey as a photographer, Girault de Prangey had already established his credentials as a pioneering architectural historian. He had learned to draw and to paint, made casts from local antiquities, and in 1842 became a founding member of the Société Historique et Archéologique of his native Langres. Surviving artworks and other documents allow us to track his earliest exploratory travels. In 1831 he was in Venice, then Ravenna and Rome; the following year we find him in North Africa, in Algeria; then through 1832 and 1833 he travelled extensively in Spain where he made detailed pictorial records of significant architectural subjects.
It was in 1836 that Girault de Prangey published the first part of his planned anthology of lithographs presenting in fine and meticulous detail the characteristics of the architecture that had so enthralled him, Souvenir de Grenade et de l'Alhambra introduced his projected series Monuments arabes et moresques de Cordoue, Séville et Grenade dessinés et mesurés en 1832 et 1833. The second and third volumes were published in 1837 and 1839 -- the latter in the year of the historic announcement by François Arago of the invention by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre of a viable photographic process.
The potential of Daguerre's process to make exact visual records was immediately recognised and exploited. On these silvered copper plates, suspended in the fine chemistry of the new photographic process, practitioners could capture with forensic precision the exact features of the physical world, natural or man-made. Scientific instrument maker Nicholas Marie Paymal Lerebours revealed his entrepreneurial vision when he announced his plan to send daguerreotypists far and wide, charged with bringing back photographic images that he would then publish as lithographs showing the world as it was rather than as interpreted through the eye and embellishments of the artist. The resulting Excursions Daguerriennes, published between 1841 and 1843, confirm the ambition and success of the project, with Lerebours able to select from submissions that embraced many of the lands of the Mediterranean as well as northern Europe and even North America and Moscow. The disappointing reality, of course, is that only the lithographic transcriptions have survived. While the publication confirms that daguerreotype plates were made successfully in many territories in immediate response to Daguerre's gift of his process to France, we can only appreciate them second-hand, mediated through the hand of the lithographic plate makers.
Girault de Prangey recognised how Daguerre's invention could very effectively serve his own programme of the scientific analysis and documentation of architecture; and so in 1841 he applied himself to mastering the necessary techniques. At first he worked in familiar territory, very swiftly achieving command of the process with splendid plates made in Paris and around his villa in Tuaires, such as his exceptional sun-lit plant study dated 1841 (lot 3). His next step was to gather the necessary equipment and resources and to make the detailed plans and preparations for an extended journey that would become a truly historic photographic Grand Tour -- though more than a century and a half were to pass before the daguerreotype plates that he brought back from this epic journey were to become sufficiently well known to establish him as a seminal pioneering figure within the history of photography.
Girault de Prangey's itinerary embraced both the traditional Grand Tour sites of the ancient classical civilizations of Rome and Greece that had long been regarded as the crucible of European culture and the more exotic territories of the Eastern Mediterranean that had more recently captivated the imaginations of the French -- in the wake of Napoleon's forays into Egypt and through the romantic writings of a generation of authors that included François-René de Chateaubriand, Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Girault de Prangey set off with exceptional qualifications, his ambitions as a traveller supported by thorough preliminary research and by the tools and the methodologies of an experienced historian. It should be no surprise therefore that his photographs are so well considered in choice of subject and so well executed -- the perfect alliance of art and of science, a great technical accomplishment and one of exceptional cultural value.
Girault de Prangey's travels can be reconstructed through the internal evidence of his dating and through a few surviving manuscript records. He set sail from Marseille early in 1842, was in Rome between April and July, and then moved on to Athens, where he spent five weeks. By the autumn he was in Alexandria. After a winter spent in Egypt, in 1843 he visited Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Asia Minor, returning to Egypt later in the year where he made plans to travel up the Nile and to visit the historic sites of Upper Egypt. In 1844, he left a record of his presence in Philae. He was in Jerusalem in May of 1844 and in August we trace him to Beirut. Girault de Prangey returned to France later that year. There survives no account of any endeavour on his part to exhibit or promote the remarkable fruit of his photographic expedition; only the random hand of fate permitted the miracle of his archive surviving, against all odds, its abandonment and neglect through subsequent decades.
Christie's is honoured to present the present catalogue, our third dedicated to this important pioneer of photography, and we take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank those who have played their particular parts in preserving, investigating and re-introducing to a wider audience the multiple achievements of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey: notably the Comte de Simony and his heirs, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, Sylvie Aubenas, Grant Romer, Christophe Mauron, Christophe Dutoit, our former colleague Lindsey Stewart, and of course the collectors whose active participation in the auctions has been crucial to the rehabilitation of these historic photographs.
GIRAULT DE PRANGEY -- AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT IN PHOTOGRAPHY
In the decade that has passed since the daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey first started to become known in some detail and to a wider international audience, it has been possible to reach an ever fuller understanding of the exceptional place that this French practitioner occupies within the history of photography.
Helmut Gernsheim had described succinctly in his 1955 History of Photography how the oeuvre of Girault de Prangey was largely the fruit of a three-year journey in the Mediterranean -- from which he returned with the earliest surviving images of Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine....
This Grand Tour was undertaken with the principal objective of constituting an archive of visual documents that would serve his scholarly investigations into aspects of the history of architecture; that said, Girault de Prangey returned in 1844 with a substantial number of daguerreotypes that might be justly characterised as aesthetically ground-breaking. A true pioneer, he explored a hitherto unknown visual language, developing ideas with the freedom of the amateur bound by no preconceptions, and with the sensitivity of an experienced artist.
The Frenchman should rightly be acknowledged as the inventor of truly new ways of making pictures. From his very first engagement with the medium in 1841 -- making images of considerable accomplishment in France -- he experimented with innovative and diverse formats. These included such triumphs as the perfect square of his plant still life (lot 3) and the panoramic views -- both horizontal and vertical -- that were without precedent in photography. He had large-format plates specially made to a bespoke size, exceeding the standard whole-plate dimensions, and he used these to make images that were at the edges of abstraction. He regularly constructed pictures that were dramatised by bold and surprising cropping; or would take an opposite approach and depict his subject with a direct frontality that few of his contemporaries would dare.
No other photographer before him had shown such a special fondness for radical close-ups and few succeeded in capturing figures so naturalistically. Consider such images as lots 33, 41, 43, 48, 53 or 62, and the informal study of travel companions aboard the Emitgé (lot 39). Even more surprising were his juxtapositions of two images side-by-side on a single plate. Well before the Surrealists, he achieved a kind of photo-collage. We have no account of his motivation -- whether purely aesthetic or in response to practical dictates. Yet such instances as his twin studies of windows in Cornéto, Italy (lot 8) remain intact, suggesting today the deliberate intent of Girault de Prangey's original and inspired vision.
Girault de Prangey set out, in common with a number of contemporary early daguerreotypists -- notably Joly de Lotbinière, Goupil-Fesquet and Jules Itier -- to fulfil the potential suggested by François Arago to exploit this new process 'as a means for one man to copy the millions of hieroglyphs that cover the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis and Karnak'.
Though numerous unresolved mysteries still surround Girault de Prangey's images, we can make one claim with confidence, namely that this man showed exceptional artistic daring in the way he used his daguerreotype equipment, becoming a true and impassioned inventor of hitherto unimagined photographic possibilities -- and all this before 1845.
Christophe Dutoit, to whom we are most grateful for this insightful introduction, is a historian whose researches on Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey -- published in Miroirs d'Argent, Musée Gruérien, 2008 -- have shed considerable light on the photographer's life and oeuvre and established his crucial importance as a pioneer figure in the early history of photography.
NOTES ON THE MOUNTING AND CATALOGUING OF THE DAGUERREOTYPES
Each of the daguerreotypes presented in this catalogue is mounted between two sheets of glass with paper tape around the edges. These mounts were made in the 1970s.
The majority bear on the reverse a small paper label inscribed in ink by the photographer with a title and frequently also an inventory number and date. Each of these labels is illustrated in the catalogue and Girault de Prangey's titles and dates serve as the basis for our catalogue entries. Where there is no title, or date, the relevant data is given in square brackets, and the photographer's abbreviations have, wherever possible, been extended, in square brackets, for greater clarity.
All the daguerreotypes are illustrated actual size.
***** PRE LOT TEXT FOR LOT 1*****
You will take delight...if I may flatter myself in saying so, in seeing the uses to which I have put the most helpful instrument invented by Daguerre.
JOSEPH-PHILIBERT GIRAULT DE PRANGEY
Post Lot Text
Whereas other daguerreotype boxes in the archive have annotations in another hand, these were inscribed by the photographer himself. The data corresponds to the inventory found in a daguerreotype box by the Musée Gruérien, and pictured in Mauron, Brandt, Dutoit and Henguely, Miroirs d'Argent, Musée Gruérien, Editions Slatkine, 2008, pp. 86-87.