The Heliographic Mission of 1851: a heritage vocation

The Heliographic Mission of 1851: a heritage vocation

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

  • Interior view of a gallery of the cloister, Saint-Pierre abbey in Moissac

    LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

  • Blois castle, staircase of François Ier.

    LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

  • Amphitheater of Nîmes, interior view.

    BALDUS Edouard Denis (1813 - 1889)

To close

Title: Interior view of a gallery of the cloister, Saint-Pierre abbey in Moissac

Author : LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

Creation date : 1851

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 23.2 - Width 34.5

Technique and other indications: Salted paper proof

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Picture reference: 00-003399 / PHO1979-20

Interior view of a gallery of the cloister, Saint-Pierre abbey in Moissac

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

To close

Title: Blois castle, staircase of François Ier.

Author : LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

Creation date : 1851

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 36.4 - Width 27.5

Technique and other indications: Salted paper proof

Storage location: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J.-G. Berizzi

Picture reference: 96-016688 / PH.103618

Blois castle, staircase of François Ier.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J.-G. Berizzi

To close

Title: Amphitheater of Nîmes, interior view.

Author : BALDUS Edouard Denis (1813 - 1889)

Creation date : 1851

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 24.5 - Width 31.2

Technique and other indications: Monochrome negative on paper, panoramic view in three photographs (central part). Negative intended to form a panorama with DO 1982 528 and DO 1982 530.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Picture reference: 10-535771 / DO1982-529

Amphitheater of Nîmes, interior view.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: December 2011

Historical context

The notion of heritage

The fierceness of the revolutionary sans-culottes against the monuments of the Ancien Régime which housed the emblems of royalty and of the Church, castles, gates, convents, churches, cloisters, statues, bells, etc., led to a capture of awareness of the heritage character of works of art within public authorities. This new France which emerges from the Revolution also feels the need to acquire a historical depth, a past no longer thought of as substantial as under the Ancien Régime, but considered "historical".

Thus, from 1794, in the wake of Father Grégoire, the notion of vandalism began to be applied to monuments, and attention was paid to creating institutions intended to collect the remains that escaped revolutionary destruction, thus the Museum of French Monuments of Alexandre Lenoir (1795). However, it was still many years before the concept of "historic monument" developed under the Revolution received official recognition, with the creation by Guizot of the General Inspectorate of Historical Monuments (1830) and of the Commission of Historical Monuments ( 1837). Under the leadership of Prosper Mérimée, Inspector General, the Commission is responsible for inventorying and classifying monuments, as well as training architects in their restoration.

In 1838, to document its work, the Commission undertook to assemble an iconographic collection of all the buildings in France; the invention of photography the following year endowed her with a tool that she immediately adopted. In 1851, taking advantage of the progress of the new process, she entrusted five photographers with the mission of photographing 175 monuments among the most representative of the national heritage.

Image Analysis

Photographed monuments

The five photographers selected by the Historic Monuments Commission in 1851 all belong to the newly created Heliographic Society. They are Henri Le Secq, Édouard Baldus, Auguste Mestral, Hippolyte Bayard and Gustave Le Gray. Each is assigned a precise itinerary with a list of monuments to be reproduced photographically.

Thus Édouard Baldus, who in the past photographed the ancient buildings of Arles, is assigned the South of France, from Vienne to Arles. During his journey, he took many architectural views of Nîmes where he stayed for ten days, such as this panoramic interior view of the amphitheater, the central part of a photomontage, a technique in which the photographer was a past master. To put the space in perspective and fully restore the monumentality of the building, Baldus takes three views and then juxtaposes the negatives to create a large-format image. This complex technique subsequently earned him a specialization in architectural photography.

For their part, Gustave Le Gray and Auguste Mestral have joined forces to travel and photograph together the monuments located in a vast area ranging from the castles of the Loire to the Pyrenees. In Moissac, the tandem documents the abbey cloister in all its faces. This interior view of a gallery photographed against the light gives the full measure of the talent of the two artists who have managed to restore its monumentality and the beauty of its proportions by means of an off-center framing and play of light and shadow. . The upper and lower portions of the gallery disappear into darkness, while the clean lines of the columns are projected onto the floor, lending a dramatic tone to the subject. This deliberately aesthetic bias and the vegetation that invades the central courtyard of the cloister show that architecture is not the only subject of representation for Le Gray and Mestral.

At the Château de Blois, the first stop on their journey, the photographers, on the other hand, favored pieces of architecture in some of their prints. So this view of the Francis I winger where the framing is centered on the large hors d'oeuvre staircase located on the courtyard, leaving no room for the landscape or the sky. Emblematic of the first French Renaissance, this staircase is finely crafted at its top and on its facade with Italian-inspired motifs that the play of light brings out admirably here.


Safeguarding monuments

These photographs show that beyond the documentary requirements of the order that was placed to them, Le Gray and Mestral were able to take a certain freedom in relation to their subject and set out to develop personal works that could arouse admiration. outside of the context in which they were born. Photographers brought back to Paris in the fall of 1851 thousands of photos, 258 of which were selected by the Commission des monuments historique for inclusion in its archives. While the readability of the images and the accuracy of the information they provide are the main selection criteria, aesthetic intentions are sometimes also taken into account.

Nevertheless, the primary vocation of these images is above all heritage. The choice of monuments to be photographed, 175 from thousands of classified works, and the final selection of proofs reflect the work of the Commission, its fields of intervention and its objectives. These are mainly architectural buildings of all eras, even if Antiquity and the Middle Ages appear to be clearly privileged, and, more often than not, buildings that require urgent restoration. This is particularly the case of the abbey of Moissac and the castle of Blois, documented by Le Gray and Mestral which, shortly before the 1851 Mission, had been awarded at the request of the Commission exceptional grants for their restoration. The photographs of the Heliographic Mission provide considerable working documentation for architects responsible for the restoration of monuments and, in general, constitute a valuable working tool for studying different styles of architecture. The collection of proofs thus constituted and gradually enriched by the Commission over the following decades bears witness to the scientific value which was accorded to photography from its inception.

  • patrimony
  • architecture
  • Abbot Gregory
  • Arles
  • Lenoir (Alexandre)


Sylvie AUBENAS (dir.), Gustave Le Gray, 1820-1884, catalog of the exhibition organized by the B.N.F., March 19-June 6, 2002, Paris, B.N.F.-Gallimard, 2002. François BERCÉ, The First Works of the Historic Monuments Commission, 1837-1848, minutes and records of architects, Paris, Picard, 1979.Francoise BERCÉ, Historical monuments to heritage, from the 18th century to the present day, or the Misguidance of the heart and the mind, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.Anne CARREZ, "The Commission of historical monuments from 1848 to 1852", in The history of art n ° 47, November 2000 Jean-Michel LENIAUD, Archipelagos of the past: heritage and its history, Paris, Fayard, 2002. Anne de MONDENARD, The Heliographic Mission: five photographers toured France in 1851, Paris, Monum, Heritage Editions, 2002. Pierre NORA (dir.), Memorial place. The nation. The territory. The State. The patrimony, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Quarto", 3 vol., 1986.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "The Heliographic Mission of 1851: a heritage vocation"

Video: The Lighthouse Acappella


  1. Egbert

    In it something is. Many thanks for the information, now I will not admit such a mistake.

  2. Kord

    What a wonderful topic

  3. Voodoogar

    I specially registered on the forum to thank you for the advice. How can I thank you?

  4. Maugul

    In my opinion, it's the very interesting topic. I offer you to discuss it here or in PM.

Write a message