Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Orangey at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Orangey at Metropolitan Museum of Art

This exhibition, the first in the United States devoted to Girault, and the first to focus on his Mediterranean journey, features approximately 120 of his daguerreotypes, supplemented by examples of his graphic work—watercolors, paintings, and his lithographically illustrated publications. Among the images he created are the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem and among the first daguerreotypes depicting Italy.

Image: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Self-portrait (detail), 1841–42. Daguerreotype, 4 3/4 x 3 11/16 in. (12 x 9.4 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG3-733)

 

It's hard to imagine a time when taking travel photos involved more than pointing and tapping a smartphone. But 180 years ago, at the dawn of photography, anyone who wished to document their trip needed to carry loads of heavy equipment and perform lengthy, complicated chemical processes. So think of how impressive it was for a mid-nineteenth-century French artist to spend years traveling to countries few Europeans had ever seen, all the while chronicling his journey with a camera.

 

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Desert near Alexandria, 1842. Daguerreotype, 3 11/16 x 9 1/2 in. (9.4 x 24.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Philippe de Montebello Fund, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, Joyce F. Menschel and Annette de la Renta Gifts, and funds from various donors, 2016 (2016.97)

 

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey was an artist, architectural historian, and pioneer photographer at a time when France was focusing on cultural preservation at home and colonial expansion abroad. Girault hoped to establish himself as an expert on Islamic architecture in the new field of histoire monumentale("monumental history"), an early term for the archaeology of buildings. After a three-year photographic excursion throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, he returned to France with more than one thousand daguerreotypes, today considered to be the world's oldest photographic archive.

 

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Self-portrait (detail), 1841–42. Daguerreotype, 4 3/4 x 3 11/16 in. (12 x 9.4 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France (EG3-733)

 

In 1842, artist, architectural historian, archaeologist, and pioneer photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804–1892) embarked on a three-year photographic excursion throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and he returned to France with more than one thousand daguerreotypes—an unparalleled feat in the history of photography. Among the images he created are the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem and among the first daguerreotypes depicting Italy.

A trailblazer of the daguerreotype process, Girault used oversize plates and innovative formats to produce what is today the world's oldest photographic archive—all in the service of a brand-new type of archaeological fieldwork. This exhibition, the first in the United States devoted to Girault, and the first to focus on his Mediterranean journey, features approximately 120 of his daguerreotypes, supplemented by examples of his graphic work—watercolors, paintings, and his lithographically illustrated publications.

 

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892). Window and Bell Tower, Corneto, 1842. Daguerreotype, 7 5/16 x 9 1/2 in. (18.6 x 24.1 cm). National Collection of Qatar (OM.7)

 

The daguerreotype — a very early photographic method —was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre only three years before Girault embarked on his excursion. Daguerreotypes, which are unique images exposed to silver-plated copper, are fragile if left unprotected, whereas Girault carefully archived his plates and kept them in custom-built, wooden storage boxes.

His singular photographs withstood not only strenuous travel, but also years of neglect; they were not discovered until three decades after Girault's death, when a distant relative happened upon them in the attic of his abandoned estate. So not only do these daguerreotypes comprise one of the earliest photo archives, they are also one of the few collections of early daguerreotypes to have survived so many years.

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue, New York

Through May 12, 2019

 

 

 

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