The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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19th August 2003 - The Daguerreotype

On 19 August 1839, a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris was witness to a demonstration of a new stage in the development of photography. The 'Daguerreotype' as it became known, was displayed for the Académie by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, after his experiments from the previous winter had yeilded successful results and an announcement the previous January. This was in the context of competition from the British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot, who was working on a similar method simultaneously. (However, whereas the French government provided generous support for Daguerre, Talbot had been left to work with little backing.)

The 'Daguerreotype' process is described in an article from the United States Gazette (Philadelphia), 25 September 1839, as reprinted in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 24, no. 3 (September 1839), pp. 209-210. The author Alexander D. Bache highlights some of the major points of the new technique:

"The Academies of Sciences and of Fine Arts of the Institute, met on the 19th of August last, to hear the explanation of the process of M. Daguerre, from the perpetual Secretary, M. Arago.

" many curious experiments, and much labor, [M. Daguerre] was gradually led to his present process, the details of which present some very strange, and so far unexplained phenomena.

"A sheet of copper, plated with silver, is carefully cleaned on the silver side by the aid of nitric acid... The plate thus prepared is exposed to the action of the vapour of iodine. For this purpose, it is placed in a box upon the bottom of which a small quantity of iodine is strewed, separated from the plate by a gauze screen, so as to diffuse the vapour uniformly... A yellow tint indicates that the plate has been sufficiently long exposed to the action of the vapour. It is then transferred to the camera obscura carefully excluding it meanwhile from the light.

"M. Daguerre is understood to have made some improvements to this instrument; to understand the progress of the present operation, however, it is only necessary to observe, that a plate of ground glass having been previously placed so as to receive a distinct image of the object to be delineated, the prepared silver plate is substituted for it. The effect is immediate, but is only very slightly perceptible. The plate is next exposed to the action of the vapour of mercury... The vapour of mercury appears to affect only the parts which have been already acted upon by the light, forming, probably, an amalgam of mercury and silver. After this operation the plate is dipped into a weak solution of hyposulphite of soda, and then washed with distilled water. The process is now complete, and the plate presents a drawing in which the light and shade is truly represented, and which may be exposed, without change, to the action of the light."

The London Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, The Athenaeum, had, on Saturday 24 August 1839, speculated as to the further applications of M. Daguerre's process:

"[M. Daguerre has] hopes of discovering some farther method of fixing not merely the images of things, but also of their colors; a hope based upon the fact that, in the experiments which have been made with the solar spectrum, blue color has been seen to result from blue rays, orange color from orange, and so on with the others... The question arose, too, whether it will be possible to take portraits by this method?... A serious difficulty, however, presented itself: Entire absence of motion on the part of the object is essential to the success of the operation; and this is impossible to be obtained from any face exposed to the influence of so intense a light... [However] the head could be easily fixed by means of supporting apparatus..."

The author finishes his report with the following note:

"I shall only add, that M. Daguerre has entered into a contract with Giroux, the celebrated toyman, for the practical application of his discovery; and that it is said he has already in petto some new results of importance, which he will submit to the Académie at an early opportunity."

(The Athenaeum, no. 617, pp. 636-637)

The experiments of pioneers such as Daguerre and Talbot were to have an enormous effect on science and art in the nineteenth century, not least upon an artist like Whistler, who embraced various aspects and usages of photography in his own artistic life. As Dorment and MacDonald summarise, Whistler

"used photography to record and promote his work. As early as 1869 he sent photographs of pictures to prospective clients. In 1873 and several times in later years, the contents of his studio were photographed, providing a record of paintings which were later altered... In 1892 he sold albums of photographs after his 1892 retrospective exhibition... He used photographs occasionally as a working tool, in planning alterations to his work... He posed enthusiastically both for studio portraits and snapshots out doors... The one thing he does not seem to have done, was to take photographs himself."

(Dorment, Richard, and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, Tate Gallery, London, 1994, pp. 227-28)