Artistic diversions in Lyon

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I spent this morning in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lyon (apologies, but I can’t find out how to insert an acute accent with this software) and was particularly struck by this picture by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Une Noce Chez Le Photographer (1879).   Look at it closely: it is a naturalistic painting of a photographer and his subjects, from an age when photography involved long exposures to produce stilted, black and white images.  My first impression was that this was simply a scene of 19th century life, but as I continued to look, a more radical interpretation occurred to me.  Dagnan-Bouveret (who I had not previously encountered) seems to be saying: “look at how much more real I can make my painting, compared to your photographs.”  Look at the man and boy in the right hand corner: the latter squirming to escape the tobacco fumes that are being blown into his face.  Look at the expressions and actions of the observers on the left hand side.   The bride and groom may have the serious expressions and formal poses that we expect of photographic portraits from this age, but here they are rendered in vivid colours.  This painting is, in short, everything that nineteenth-century photography was not.   “It may take longer to produce”, he says, “and it may cost you more money, but look how much more you get for your investment.”   This is, in effect, the last stand of naturalism before it is overtaken by modernism on the one hand and developments in photography on the other.  Although, it is worth remembering, that widespread use of colour photography is still more than 70 years in the future.  My parent’s wedding photographs, from 1960, for example, were all black and white.

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