On first seeing a photograph around 1840, the influential French painter Paul Delaroche proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” The story sounds far-fetched, but it captures the anxieties that surrounded the technology when it first emerged in the mid-19th century.
At the time of photography’s invention, painting was (and had long been) the primary medium for recording images. The art establishment had rigid guidelines for style and an official hierarchy of subject matter: First came history paintings, which sought to impart moral messages. Portraiture was next. Then came scenes of daily life or genre paintings. Landscape and still life ranked lower still.
The nearly 250 iconic pictures in this exhibition are organized by these official categories, illuminating the possibilities and challenges that amateur and professional photographers faced while experimenting with their new medium. In each section, you’ll see how early photographers both embraced and questioned the conventions of the dominant tradition; how technical limitations hindered their attempts to imitate painting; and how, in the process, they invented new ways of seeing the world, setting the stage for our modern visual culture.
All works are from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg. This exhibition was organized by the Barnes Foundation in association with art2art Circulating Exhibitions and curated by Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes.
This exhibition was produced as part of a new educational venture between the Barnes and the University of Pennsylvania, led by Collins and professor Aaron Levy, with curatorial contributions from students in the 2018 Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Seminar Ars Moriendi: Life and Death in Early Photography.
- Original calotypes by William Henry Fox Talbot, including still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and street scenes from both England and France.
- The earliest war photographs, taken of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton, including his iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death as well as the 11-plate panorama of Sebastopol.
- An 1844 daguerreotype of Jerusalem—one of the first of the city—by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.
- A full-plate daguerreotype of the Fontaine des Innocents in Paris by Baron Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros from the 1850s.
- Some of the earliest existing travel photographs of the Middle East, Southern Europe, Africa, India, Burma, Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand.
- Portraits by Nadar, Paris’s great portraitist and larger-than-life personality, with subjects ranging from literary legends—including an oversize 1885 deathbed portrait of Victor Hugo—to a Japanese delegation to France (1864). Also included are his 1860s photographs of the Paris catacombs and sewers, which represent one of the first uses of artificial lighting in photography.
- Pre-Raphaelite allegorical portraiture by Julia Margaret Cameron.
- French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey’s 1880s motion studies of athletes, which prefigure the development of motion pictures, much like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies in the US.
- Seascapes, landscapes, photographs of military maneuvers, and other works by Gustave Le Gray, the leader of the 1850s French movement of fine art photography.
Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130 | U.S.A.
Peter Henry Emerson. Gathering Water Lilies, 1885. Platinum print. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg