The Solemnity of Shadows: Juan Laurent’s Vision of Spain
The National Gallery of Art Library’s continuing exhibition program displays selections from its rich rare book collection in two separate venues, one in a permanent gallery on the ground floor of the Gallery’s West Building, the other in the Library atrium on the ground floor of the East Building. A few of these exhibitions each year draw from the more than 13 million images representing the entire history of Western art preserved in the Library’s Department of Image Collections.
From November 7 to December 30, 2011, the department presented The Solemnity of Shadows: Juan Laurent’s Vision of Spain in the atrium of the Study Center. On view were 23 rare large-format albumen photographs, a collodion glass negative, and three albums of Spanish art and architecture by Juan Laurent (1816–1886), a preeminent figure in the history of Spanish photography. Laurent began his career as a portrait photographer in Madrid in 1856, but soon grew and expanded his business until it became the most recognizable topographical photography company in Spain. Large format photographs of Spain’s public works, architecture, cities, popular types in their natural settings, art collections, and contemporary art expositions were his specialties, which he sold in his shops in Madrid and Paris singly or compiled into albums according to customer preference. The Laurent company’s output was immense, and its commercial reach was truly international in scope. Laurent’s was the first commercial firm to photograph the art collections of the Prado Museum, the Royal Armory, and the Academy of San Fernando, earning him a place of honor with other distinguished European photography houses like Alinari in Italy, and Adolphe Braun in France.
The idea behind the exhibition was to give a taste of the encyclopedic range of Laurent’s production with images representing the north and south of Spain during early and modern periods. Of special interest were images that might have appealed to the romantic and picturesque notions of Spain held by European travelers who would often buy Laurent photographs in Paris, Brussels, or London in advance of their planned trips to the Peninsula. Thus, Laurent’s view of Toledo, with its thirteenth-century bridge and sixteenth-century Alcázar on its arid citadel height, his shot of a Plateresque monument in Salamanca, and his view of a Hispano-Flemish monastery in Valladolid all evoke the north of Spain, epic deeds, and a mysterious historical past. Representing the south with its exotic Arabic cities were photographs of Seville, Córdoba, and Granada. In Granada, the Laurent company spent 30 years refining its photographs of the Alhambra, the last bastion of Moorish rule in the Spain. A coordinating concept for the set of the three Alhambra photographs in the exhibition was the physical decay of the Arab monument during the nineteenth century and the emergence of conservation efforts in the appointment of Rafael Contreras as the Alhambra’s first official restorer in the 1850s. The idea of decay was a specific ingredient of the picturesque aesthetic and of romanticism in general. Countering this historical romantic tendency was a selection of Laurent’s photographs of modern life, exemplified by his views of the freshly-built bull ring and the new urban plaza the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, as well as the new neo-classical railroad station in Barcelona.
The exhibition began to take form a few years ago when the department purchased a pair of albums of Spanish architecture by Laurent. The beauty of the photographs in the albums posed the question: How many other Laurent photographs might already be in the department’s collections? A number were known to be among the rare photographs given to the department by the late René Huyghe, the distinguished curator of painting and drawing at the Musée du Louvre and the Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art from 1967 to 1968. A search in the rare section and in other aisles of the photo archives soon uncovered many of the other wonderful photographs of Spanish architecture that comprised this exhibition.
In the course of preparation for the exhibition, the department purchased new photographs by Laurent of Seville and Granada, and two new albums with photographs that filled the gap in the collection for Laurent’s documentation of public works projects and his d’après nature series of popular types like gypsies, shepherds, and fishermen posed in their natural settings. The newly acquired albums required extensive last-minute conservation work by the Gallery’s photography conservator Sarah Wagner in order to be included in the exhibition, as did many of the photographs mounted as single sheets. The exhibition concluded with a selection of Laurent’s photographs of works of art, including striking images of an engraved sixteenth-century helmet and an Arab vase found in the Alhambra.
A collodion negative featured in the exhibition shed new light on the influence the Laurent company had in the United States. Many albumen prints with the Laurent trademark found in the main photo archives stacks were as much as five times smaller than the large format photographs in the rare section. Andrea Gibbs, deputy head of the department and image specialist for architecture, explained that the smaller prints were period albumen photographs made in Boston by the Soule Art Publishing Co. in the 1870s and 1880s, and that their corresponding collodion glass negatives were also stored in the department’s negative storage room. These albumen prints of Laurent originals were in effect contemporaneous copies made in the United States for the American market. Searching through the Gramstorff negative collection, department staff identified numerous wet collodion glass plates that reproduced four images of the same Laurent subject on a single plate measuring 8 x 10 inches. This was the Soule Company’s method of mass production, and explained the smaller prints. All told, the Department of Image Collections has at least 502 original large format albumen photographs by Laurent and his company, and 159 smaller reproductions by Soule in the Gramstorff glass plate negative and photograph collection.
Throughout his entire career, Laurent made albumen prints from collodion negatives. The marriage of these two revolutionary technologies, first developed in the early 1850s, produced the amazing clarity and sharpness of his photographs. Detail is rendered in an extraordinary fashion in both the light and dark areas of the photographs, with the shadows especially teeming with palpable depth and life. Juan Laurent became an exceptional practitioner of the new technologies, and he and his firm used them to communicate a truly monumental artistic vision for thirty years.
To achieve the high resolution and clarity afforded by the collodion and albumen processes, photographers like Juan Laurent were willing to suffer the inconvenience of transporting a cumbersome portable laboratory darkroom to often remote sites where they would have to laboriously develop their hand-crafted collodion negatives right after exposing them. To this end, Laurent was certainly aided by the nascent Spanish railroad system and the contacts he had made when he first photographed railroad tunnels, bridges, stations, and other public works for the Spanish government in the 1850s and 1860s. His portable darkrooms could now be transported relatively easily in railroad baggage cars to remote and exotic areas in Spain that had little-known architectural gems and that had hitherto been accessible only by mule-drawn diligencias, or stagecoaches. Without the railroads, Laurent’s encyclopedic photographic survey of Spanish art and architecture would have been impossible.
Very little has been published in English about Juan Laurent’s life, and only two small Laurent exhibitions have taken place in the United States –one at the University of Arizona in 2001, and the other at the University of Washington in 2007. The amount of published research in Spanish, on the other hand, is considerable, with much of it in Spanish exhibition and museum catalogues. This research has been enthusiastically conducted over the last thirty years by an impressive group of specialists who take great pride in this French expatriate whose excellent archive has helped form the national image of Spain (and Portugal) during the nineteenth century. One such specialist is Carlos Teixidor Cadenas, a renowned Laurent scholar and authority on Spanish nineteenth-century photography, who works as a photo conservator in the photo archive of the Archivo Ruiz Vernacci in the Spanish Ministry of Culture in Madrid –the archive that has had the old Juan Laurent collodion negatives since their purchase by the Spanish State in 1975. Mr. Teixidor responded to initial inquiries by generously donating numerous books and exhibition catalogues on Laurent and Spanish photography to the National Gallery of Art Library, and by offering advice throughout the exhibition process.
Laurent exhibitions in Spain and Portugal since 1975 have multiplied. Many of them explored Laurent’s topographical activity in Spanish provincial capitals like Ávila, Valencia, Seville, Granada, and La Rioja, and one exhibition in the Museo Municipal de Madrid (now known as the Museo de la Historia) focused on his photographs of artists and politicians. In 1869, Laurent organized a campaign in Portugal where he used his small darkroom mounted on wheels to photograph Portuguese monuments, art collections, and members of the Portuguese royal family. His Portuguese photographs have been the subjects of two large exhibitions in Lisbon and Oporto in the last three years.
Jean Bautiste Laurent y Minier was born to French parents in Garchizy near Nevers in eastern France. When in 1843 at age 27 he immigrated to Madrid, he changed his first name to the Spanish equivalent Juan, and it was with “Juan” that his tombstone in a Madrid cemetery is inscribed. But he was best known simply as J. Laurent, the brand name he adopted for his photography company and the name he printed on all his photographs.
Laurent’s first occupation in Madrid appears to have been as a manufacturer of marbleized papers and luxury cardboard containers, the former used for endpapers of books of the period, and the latter for pastry and candy boxes. He is documented as receiving medals twice for his decorative paper products in the 1848 and 1850 Industrial Expositions of Madrid. An inheritance from his father, who was 75 when his son was born and who died in 1818, may have enabled Laurent to establish his papíer marbre business on Calle Olivo in Madrid, which he ran until 1857 when his photography studio started to be profitable. He married a French-born widow whose husband ran a pastry shop on the same street.
Apart from Spanish census records and the records of the French embassy in Madrid, Laurent left a clear paper trail in a number of Spanish patent applications that demonstrate his resourceful, inventive spirit. In 1855, a year before opening his photography studio, he applied for a patent for a method of coloring photographs of portraits, landscapes, and works of art; in 1863 he patented an invention that applied photographic images to hand fans; and in 1865, Laurent collaborated with François Willème (1830-1905) in producing “photosculptures” of the Spanish Royal Family. This process involved surrounding a subject with 24 cameras and simultaneously taking photographs that were then mechanically turned into a three-dimensional clay sculpture. It does not appear that he practiced the earlier Daguerreotype or calotype techniques before adopting the wet collodion/albumen process. His invention of Leptographic paper with his partner the Spanish photographer José Martínez Sánchez was intended as an alternative to albumen paper that however did not prove commercially viable.
One of Laurent’s interesting private commissions was photographing the frescoes of Francisco Goya known as the Black Paintings in situ before they were removed from the walls of the Quinta del Sordo, the painter’s home in Madrid. The photographs may have been commissioned to aid the Museo del Prado conservator who executed the risky transfer of the wall paintings to canvas. Laurent’s photographs are the only extant photographs of the Goya masterworks in their original location. In 2011, the Laurent negatives of the Black Paintings in the Archivo Ruiz Vernacci were re-dated. After a careful six-month study, Carlos Teixidor announced in a Spanish journal dated December 2011 that the negatives previously thought to be from the mid-1860s were really made c.1874. Interestingly, these negatives have been used in recent years as evidence in arguments, both pro and con, that the Black Paintings are not by Goya, but by Goya’s son Javier or another unknown artist.
Family members and successor administrators actively commercialized Laurent’s archive of glass negatives long after he retired from business. His classic images were published in postcards, guidebooks, art history books and encyclopedias well into the twentieth century. Some examples of these in the National Gallery of Art Library are the Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana, an early twentieth-century Spanish encyclopedia; the remarkable books about Spain and Spanish art published by Albert F. Calvert (1872-1946) who procured his old Juan Laurent images from the Juan Laurent successor, Joseph Lacoste; España, sus monumentos y artes, su naturaleza e historia, the earliest volumes of which were published while Juan Laurent was still alive and which reproduce Laurent photographs by the then new halftone printing process. There is also a catalogue of the arms and armor in the Royal Armory published in 1898 by Laurent’s stepdaughter, Catalina Dosch de Roswag and her husband Alfonso. The Department of Image Collections also preserves a rare postcard by the Laurent firm that was printed on Leptographic paper. Researchers are welcome to make an appointment with the Library to view any of the books or with the Department of Image Collections to view any of the photographs by Juan Laurent described in this article.
In 1881, Juan Laurent was recognized for his contributions to the Spanish nation by being named a Knight of the Order of George III by King Alphonse XII. Although he was famous during his lifetime, the continuing state of disrepair of his tomb in Madrid and the resistance by Spanish authorities to have it conserved and made an historic monument speaks of his present status as somewhere between fame and oblivion. The jagged fragments of his ruined tomb suggest however that he has broken free of death and has risen nonetheless to his rightful place in the pantheon of Spanish photography.
– Contributed by Thomas A. O’Callaghan, image specialist for Spanish art, National Gallery of Art, Washington