Fleeing a Rhine Province arrest warrant for the capital offense of counterfeiting, Édouard Baldus (French, born Prussia, 1813-1889) arrived in Paris in 1838, ostensibly to study painting. He submitted paintings to each of the annual Salons in Paris from 1841 to 1851 but met with little success and achieved no critical mention. In the decade that followed, however, from 1851 to 1861, Baldus abandoned the easel and took up the camera, rose to the top of his new profession, won international critical acclaim, secured commissions from government ministries and captains of industry, and created a body of photographs now considered early masterpieces of the art. He was recognized as one of the few photographers to combine aesthetic sensitivity with an astonishing technical prowess in the still experimental and handcrafted medium.
In 1851 he was one of five artists selected by the Commission des monuments historiques, a government agency, to carry out missions héliographiques, photographic surveys of the nation’s architectural patrimony. So impressive were Baldus’s pictures from the standpoint of clarity, beauty, and scale that he quickly won government support for a project entitled Les villes de France photographiées, an extended series of architectural views in Paris and the provinces.
By 1855, Baldus had established a reputation as the leading architectural photographer in France. In August of that year, Baron James de Rothschild—president of the Chemin de fer du Nord (Northern Railway)—commissioned Baldus to produce an album of views along the rail route from Paris to Boulogne-sur-Mer, for presentation to Queen Victoria as a souvenir of her passage on the line during her state visit to Paris.
In the years that followed, Baldus expanded his highly successful series of large-format views of historic monuments, in both Paris and the provinces. But it was in the second of his two railway albums, commissioned in 1861 by the Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée, that Baldus again pioneered new aesthetic ground. The album is a masterfully composed sequence of sixty-nine photographs of the landscape, towns, principal sites of interest, and railroad structures along the line from Lyon to Marseille and Toulon.
The photographs of Édouard Baldus are inextricably linked to the principal ideas of his age. Beginning with the Mission Héliographique, his views of historic monuments presented the vestiges of the past with unromanticized clarity for the architect, archaeologist, historian, and armchair traveler. His photographs of the construction of the New Louvre celebrated the glory of the Second Empire and created an art of the archive. And his presentation of a landscape transformed by modern engineering confidently espoused a belief in technological progress. In ten years, Baldus established the model for photographic representation in genres that barely existed before him.
Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Text adapted from Daniel’s essay on the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bald/hd_bald.htm
The exhibition, The Photographs of Édouard Baldus: Landscapes and Monuments of France was held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 3 October – 31 December 1994; at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, 24 January – 23 April 1995; and at the Musée Naional des Monuments Français, Paris, 13 May – 11 August 1995.
Malcolm Daniel, The Photographs of Édouard Baldus (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994)