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‘Le Flou of the Painter Cannot Be le Flou of the Photographer’

An Ambivalent Notion in Mid-Nineteenth Century French Photographic Criticism
Pauline Martin
Traduction de James Gussen
Cet article est une traduction de :
« Le flou du peintre ne peut être le flou du photographe »

Résumé

While le flou (a term whose contemporary meaning is ‘blurriness’ or ‘soft focus’) is generally associated with photography today, it began as a highly specialized term in the criticism of painting. In the mid-nineteenth century, when photography first became a subject of artistic discussion, le flou primarily referred to a manner of painting that promoted the artwork’s transparency by concealing the presence of the brushstrokes on the canvas. Photography criticism quietly appropriated the term and in the process radically altered its meaning, so that it henceforth came to refer to a technical defect, an opacity and lack of clarity that until that time had not been noticed. Thus, texts on photography from around 1850 display uncertainty surrounding the notion of le flou, which retains its painterly resonance while also taking on new meanings that contradict its initial definition.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Henri de la Blanchère, ‘études photographiques (2ème article),’ La Lumière, 1857, no. 6 (February 7 (...)
  • 2 Auguste Belloc, Le Catéchisme de l’opérateur photographe, traité complet de photographie sur collod (...)

1In 1857, with the development of photographic theory and criticism, two opposing views on the subject of le flou* in photography emerge, and are summed up perfectly by Henri de la Blanchère and Auguste Belloc. De la Blanchère, a former student of Gustave Le Gray and a strong champion of artistic photography and photography on paper, advocates sacrificing detail as a means for accentuating the dominant elements of the work, while deemphasizing those which are secondary. ‘Sacrifice, eliminate all these details, wipe away your thousand insignificant nothings, and you will have a whole that is truly artistic, truly satisfying.’1 He hastens to add, however, that this sacrifice is not to be identified with flou: ‘I am not in any way advocating the production of images that are flou: I am simply reiterating that if one insists on striving for the maximum possible sharpness, the result will be an image that is cold and hard and lacking in depth and life.’ Belloc, on the other hand, in his treatise on collodion photography, rebels against the very idea of eliminating details: ‘We do not share the opinion of certain amateurs who imagine that they must make sacrifices and are determined to obtain le flou at any cost and virtually everywhere; a single clear portion of the face is sufficient for them.’2 Belloc fully equates the sacrificing of detail with le flou: Henri de la Blanchère takes pains to differentiate between the two. While the two photographers agree that le flou is a defect to be avoided, they differ regarding the link between it and the sacrificing of detail. Belloc links the two aesthetic devices and rejects them both, whereas de la Blanchère distinguishes between them and valorizes the sacrificing of detail, which in his view is an essential artistic quality and one that need not degenerate into le flou.

  • 3 Michel Poivert, ‘Degenerate Photography? French Pictorialism and the Aesthetics of Optical Aberrati (...)
  • 4 William J. Newton, ‘Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and Its Relation to the Arts,’ Journal of (...)
  • 5 It would require a more in-depth examination to explain the use of the terms ‘out of focus,’ ‘soft- (...)
  • 6 Elizabeth Eastlake, ‘[Photography],’ The Quarterly Review [London], no. 101 (1857): 462. For a comm (...)
  • 7 English uses different terms to refer to le flou in painting from those associated with photography (...)
  • 8 For a history of the discovery of le flou in painting, see Marc Wellmann, Die Entdeckung der Unschä (...)

2The notion of le flou has fueled technical and aesthetic debates on the medium – the pictorialists will even make it the centerpiece of their program.3 While commonplace today, the term comprises numerous historical nuances, familiarity with which will enhance our understanding of contemporaneous texts. In this essay, I limit my attention to the earliest discussions that took place in the context of French photography criticism, where le flou provoked conflicts that, primarily for lexical reasons, were absent in Great Britain. A debate on the subject took place there nevertheless, inasmuch as the images produced by the calotype were less distinct, a phenomenon precluded by the daguerreotype and admired by French proponents of le flou. Moreover, the English addressed this issue very directly, with William J. Newton calling, in 1853, for the subject of the photograph to be slightly ‘out of focus.’4 This expression, which is technically quite specific, explicitly refers to photography whose various species of flou have distinct English terms to describe them.5 In 1857 Elizabeth Eastlake, for example, recommends that photographers leave their subjects deliberately ‘out-of-focus,’ and also that they make use of ‘accidental blurs.’6 The French language, by contrast, has only the single word flou to denote these different characteristics, and unlike English,it is forced to borrow it from a terminology associated with painting.7 We must thus go back to the theory and criticism of painting if we wish to understand how the term flou was used at this time.8

Le Flou in Painting: A Mimetic Device

  • 9 André Félibien, Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres art (...)
  • 10 It is not until 1932 that the Académie loosens – albeit extremely discreetly – the term’s exclusive (...)
  • 11Flou is a word that is never heard outside the artist’s studio and is only understood by members o (...)
  • 12 Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, Dictionnaire national ou dictionnaire universel de la langue française ( (...)
  • 13 Honoré de Balzac, A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Ève); and, Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux (...)
  • 14 Honoré de Balzac, A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Ève); and, Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux (...)

3The word flou is first employed with reference to painting in 1676 by André Félibien, who uses it ‘to express the tenderness and sweetness [douceur] of a work of art.’9 The dictionary of the Académie Française describes it as a ‘painting term’ in 1762 and again in 1798.10 Even with the advent of photography, it continues to be used predominantly in painting (and much less frequently sculpture) where, until the end of the nineteenth century, it functions as a highly specialized term.11 The definitions found in generalist dictionaries never even mention photography, leading the reader to believe that the term cannot be used in that context. ‘Flou: n. m. (from Lat. fluidus, fluid). (Painting) Grace and lightness of touch in the application of the brushstrokes; the sweetness [douceur], taste, mellowness [moelleux], tenderness, and smoothness with which a skilled painter invests his work,’ explains Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle in 1856, in a definition that will remain virtually unchanged until the twentieth century.12 The term is not only assimilated into the aesthetics of painting in dictionaries, but also in actual usage. This is borne out in literature, for example in Balzac’s Une Fille d’ève (A Daughter of Eve): ‘a painter would describe it as a little too flou,’ a character exclaims with respect to an architectural ensemble that he admires.13 Later, the narrator describes a woman who looks ‘charming in a headdress of marabout feathers, which produced the delicious melting effect [ce flou délicieux] of Lawrence’s portraits.’14 The term is used on two occasions outside the context of painting, first to characterize an architectural element, and then a woman’s outfit; each time the writer makes reference to the term’s roots in painting.

  • 15 Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences (...)
  • 16 Definition of ‘flou’ in émile Littré, Dictionnaire de la langue française (2nd ed.) (Paris: L. Hach (...)
  • 17 Definition of ‘sec’ [literally ‘dry,’ but the word has other meanings as well; it is variously tran (...)
  • 18 Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie (note 15), 880–81.
  • 19 Charles Nodier, Dictionnaire raisonné des onomatopées françaises (Paris: Demonville imprimeur-libra (...)

4In the following centuries, writers on art echo Félibien’s original definition of the term and employ the expression ‘to paint flou’ (until the nineteenth century the word is primarily used as an adverb) as the opposite of ‘a harsh and dry style of painting’15 that privileges ‘harsh, dry tones.’16 In short, a flou brush allows the painter to avoid ‘abrupt transitions from light to shadow’ and ‘contours that are excessively sharp or bold.’17 It softens the contours of the forms and allows for a gradual transition from one shade to another. In addition to this first meaning – which corresponds to the definition in present-day dictionaries – the word also refers more narrowly to a particular manner of painting, which is associated with a clearly defined technique. In 1808, Charles Nodier, echoing an explanation from the Encyclopédie of the previous century,18 states in his definition of flou that ‘in order to blend and soften [noyer] the colors, to take away their dryness and soften their shades, one generally uses a little brush with light bristles, gently going over the areas where the brush has been and grazing the canvas so lightly that one seems to be caressing it.’19 After executing the painting, the artist goes over it with a soft brush in order to eliminate any overly prominent traces that may have been left behind by the original brush, blending the pigments to create a coherent and uniform surface.

  • 20 Claude-Henri Watelet and Pierre-Charles Lévesque, Dictionnaire des arts de peinture, sculpture et g (...)
  • 21 Wolfgang Ullrich, Die Geschichte der Unschärfe (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 2002), 9–19.

5Thus, the nineteenth century inherits an understanding of the word flou in which it refers to a style that not only softens the contours of shapes in order to render them less sharp but also, and most importantly, submerges [noie] the painter’s brushstrokes within a uniform whole in which the traces of the brush no longer stand out on the canvas. Le flou ‘renders the painted surface smooth, with no visible brushstrokes,’ according to Claude-Henri Watelet, whose dictionary is consulted as a standard reference work throughout the nineteenth century.20 It is important to stress the mimetic function of le flou as conceived by the criticism of painting. Far from disturbing the transparency of the image, it strengthens the painting’s referential illusion. It is not, as Wolfgang Ullrich suggests, a purely romantic effect that allows the painting to express an interiority cut off from reality.21 On the contrary, it enables the representation to approach reality more closely and to render it more convincingly. By smoothing out the surface of the painting, by eliminating all the traces of the brush on the canvas, le flou conceals the work’s dependence on an external creative agency.

  • 22 Théophile Gautier, Critique d’art, ed. Marie-Hélène Girard (Paris: éd. Séguier, 1994), 149; the quo (...)
  • 23 Louis Marin, On Representation, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001) (...)
  • 24 Louis Marin, On Representation (note 23), 311–12.
  • 25 Alexander Nagel, ‘Leonardo and Sfumato,’ Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 24 (Fall 1993): 7–20 (...)

6In 1859, Théophile Gautier writes of Daubigny’s painting Bords de l’Oise (The Banks of the Oise): ‘Nowhere does the brushwork seek to draw attention to itself: it is as if the canvas had been set up in front of the scene and had painted itself by some newly invented magical process.’22 By effacing the brushstrokes, le flou promotes the painting’s ideal yet never achieved ‘representational autonomization,’ and minimizes the ‘rupture[s], interruption[s], and syncope[s],’ which, according to Louis Marin, can intervene ‘to trouble the transparency, to break the quasi-identification between referent and represented in the representative.’23 It allows painting to come closer to what might be described as a photographic ideal of representation, in which the work is seen as independent of the human hand. Shorn of any reference to the activity of the painter or the means of representation, the work is now able to give the illusion of simply showing reality: ‘The representative screen is a window through which human spectators contemplate the scene represented on the painting as if they were seeing the ‘real’ scene of the world … The invisibility of the support surface is the condition of possibility for the visibility of the world represented.’24 By effacing the brushstrokes – traces that point to the production of an illusion – le flou renders the canvas invisible and provides direct and seemingly unmediated access to the represented scene. Indeed, when Leonardo da Vinci asserted that artists should seek to deflect attention from their own individual styles in order to increase the effectiveness of their works, he immediately went on to assign an essential mimetic function to sfumato, which is a direct ancestor of le flou.25

Le Flou in Photography: A Technical and Visual Defect

  • 26 Paul-Louis Roubert, L’Image sans qualités: les beaux-arts et la critique à l’épreuve de la photogra (...)

7At the moment when criticism of photography as an art form first began to develop, tentatively in the 1840s and then more widely in the following decade,26 le flou was still wholly associated with the painterly tradition. In the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, although generalist dictionaries never associated le flou with photography, the term was taken up and appropriated by experts in the new medium. While in everyday usage it was still a relatively specialized term used to describe a specific manner of painting, it also began to acquire a new technical and specifically photographic meaning in the eyes of certain specialists.

  • 27 A. Claudet, ‘Sur un nouveau procédé pour donner une égale netteté à tous les plans d’un corps solid (...)
  • 28 Paul-Louis Roubert, L’Image sans qualités (note 26), 92.
  • 29 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857 (suite et fin),’ BSFP, no. 3, S (...)

8From the moment of its invention, photography is closely associated with clarity, which became its defining characteristic. It differs in this respect from the painted canvas, which could not aspire to a similar degree of precision because of its direct contact with the hand and the brush of the artist: ‘In the finest works of art,’ writes A. Claudet in 1866, ‘no contour is unduly precise. The artist’s hand is incapable of microscopic precision, and that is a very good thing, for his works are not intended to be examined beneath a magnifying glass, and from an artistic perspective, the sharpness of the overall impression is quite sufficient.’27 Incapable of ideal accuracy and precision, the human hand cannot avoid a certain degree of flou in its representations. Conversely, the definition of photography is based on a presumption of perfect clarity. So powerful is this premise that, in the view of many critics, the advent of photography radically alters the standards that govern the representation of reality, establishing as its fundamental principle a flawless faithfulness and accuracy to which paintings will necessarily be compared. According to Paul-Louis Roubert, ‘the artist will henceforth be required to forge a middle path – a measurable middle path – between too little realism and too much, now that the photograph has become the benchmark and the standard of “true” accuracy.’28 Associated principally with the sciences, photography’s early mission is to represent the world with a degree of precision and minute detail that the human hand had not thus far been able to achieve, with the aim of facilitating a deeper and more comprehensive knowledge of that world. In 1857, the general position of the Société Française de Photographie (French Society of Photography) confirms the importance of exactness, affirming for example that ‘while some artists have found a certain charm in this flou itself, most have vehemently denounced it, insisting that photography does not have the right to employ effects like these and that, for it, perfect clarity is always an absolute imperative.’29

  • 30 André Gunthert, ‘La Conquête de l’instantané. Archéologie de l’imaginaire photographique en France, (...)
  • 31 Auguste Belloc, Le Catéchisme de l’opérateur photographe (note 2), 10. The passage is reproduced ve (...)
  • 32 Francis Wey critiques a photograph by Blanquart-Évrard in the following terms:
  • 33 ‘The fibrous texture of the paper, its bumps and pits, the capillary communication that forms betwe (...)

9Yet devoted as it is to this quest for visual precision – despite a certain degree of criticism from an artistic milieu which is still in the minority – photography encounters two principal obstacles: le flou due to movement and le flou due to problems of focus. While these two categories are not yet clearly identified or analyzed as such, they emerge as the principal impediments to photographic accuracy. Le flou due to movement, the result of an overly long exposure time, complicates the photographer’s quest for the ‘instantané’ or ‘snapshot,’ which is, as André Gunthert has shown, already an ideal for photo­graphers in the early 1840s.30 The second major obstacle is focus, with lenses producing slight distortions that make it impossible to obtain a uniformly sharp image. In 1857, Auguste Belloc complains of lenses ‘that produce images in which only a tiny portion is clear, while the rest is fuzzy and distorted. Thus, one often finds portrait lenses that yield a very clear image of the eye, whereas the moustache, for example, is just a rough shape, barely suggested, while the portions even further away from the focal point are distorted and hopelessly indistinct [vague].’31 Other factors such as lighting, weather conditions,32 and the quality of the paper (in the case of the calotype) also affect the sharpness of the image.33

  • 34 Marc-Antoine Gaudin, Traité pratique de photographie: exposé complet des procédés relatifs au dague (...)
  • 35 Edmond de Valicourt, ‘De l’exposition à la lumière – généralités sur les portraits photographiques  (...)
  • 36 F.A. Renard, ‘Rapport du jury central de l’exposition des produits de l’industrie de 1849,’ La Lumi (...)
  • 37 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857’ (note 29): 276.

10In the 1840s, the term flou is used to refer to all of these lapses in clarity without distinguishing between them. In 1844, it is used by Marc-Antoine Gaudin to describe the distortion in a photographic portrait resulting from breathing or eye movements on the part of the sitter.34 Edmond de Valicourt declares in 1861 in the Bulletin de la Société Française de Photographie, or BSFP (Bulletin of the French Society of Photography): ‘It is clear that the slightest movement of the neck, the least tensing of the facial muscles, the tiniest alteration of the physiognomy necessarily produce an image in which the shifting impressions of the model result in a generalized flou.35 In the very first issues of the journal La Lumière, flou becomes established as the preferred term to characterize the lack of sharpness in a plate or print. ‘It seemed to us that he was heading in the wrong direction,’ writes François Auguste Renard of the work of Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot: ‘Sharp outlines are replaced by a shimmering mirage, and precision of detail by a luminous flou that resembles the effects of a fire.’36 In 1857, the BSFP clarifies the meaning of the word, which it describes as ‘the established expression’ for describing a photograph that is indistinct [vague], that is, does not possess ‘perfect exactness.’37

  • 38 Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, ‘Avertissement,’ Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine ou Analyse éle (...)
  • 39 Auguste Belloc, Photographie rationnelle (note 31). In the nineteenth century, flou is still consid (...)

11By 1862, the term has definitively entered the specialized vocabulary of photography, as evidenced by this quotation from Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne: ‘At the time when most of my photographs were taken, cameras were less advanced than they are today … That often meant that if I wished to highlight certain expressive features and show them clearly, I was forced to sacrifice the others, which were flou in the parlance of photography.’38 In that same year, Belloc includes it in his glossary of photography terms: ‘FLOU. – This purely picturesque word is used to denote a photograph or portion of a photograph whose lines are not clearly defined. Cold, hard lines, a finely etched beard whose hairs, as it were, one is almost able to count, are the clear indications that the lens is good, the photographer has focused properly, and the model has posed well. In such cases, the image is said not to be flou. A poor or merely mediocre lens never produces clear images. All its results are more or less flou.’39 As a term in photography, flou denotes a technical and visual defect, which was not the case with painting.

Le Flou of Painting and le Flou of Photography

  • 40 Auguste Belloc, Photographie rationnelle (note 31), 224.

12From the lexicon of painting and aesthetics, where it still continues to reside, the term passes, albeit discreetly, into the vocabulary of photography. Thus, it may be surprising to find that a sharp distinction is drawn between le flou of painting and that of photography, which are seen to be in opposition with reference to their aesthetic value and their relationship to reality, despite certain shared visual aspects. Vehemently opposed to le flou in photography, Belloc explains in 1862: ‘Le flou of the painter cannot be le flou of the photographer; this is a fact that no one should fail to recognize.’40 For critics of the time, the reasons for this distinction are initially technical; in painting, le flou is a technical and stylistic manner that is intentionally chosen and fully embraced by the artist, whereas photographers, more often than not, produce it unintentionally, subject as they are to the vagaries of a imperfect technology. Eugène Disdéri, for whom le flou of photography is a defect, employs the French word ‘vague’ (indistinctness):

  • 41 Eugène Disdéri, L’Art de la photographie (Paris: published by the author, 1862), 260.

13‘The artist (that is, the painter) … may concentrate all the accuracy he is capable of on the principal part of his composition, while submerging the secondary portions in a carefully calculated indistinctness proportionate to the degree of importance they are to have. The photographer finds himself in a very different and much more demanding position vis-à-vis nature: he is bound to reality; he cannot set it aside in his composition, and in his execution he is condemned to imitate it exactly … In vain does he try – by choosing to photograph his subject close up in an effort to shorten the depth of field or by engaging in various procedures related to focus – to concentrate all of his accuracy of reproduction on the dominant portion of the image; the indistinctness that he achieves by these means in the rest of the photograph will magnify and exaggerate the forms and result in a lack of perspectival accuracy that makes the entire image optically ugly.’41

  • 42 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857’ (note 29): 285.
  • 43 François Brunet, La Naissance de l’idée de photographie (Paris: PUF, 2000), 90–91.

14Because it is still such a new technology, photography is forced to labor under a suspicion that did not affect painting, whose mastery had been sufficiently demonstrated over the centuries. The author of a review of the French Society of Photography’s Salon of 1857 in the BSFP justifies le flou of two portraits by M. le vicomte de Montault by arguing that it represents a deliberate choice on the part of the photographer, dispelling any suggestion that he is merely a victim of the technology: ‘M. le vicomte de Montault’s studies of rocks are bolder; their confidence and precision in execution make it all the more obvious that le flou of these portraits is a deliberate effect.’42 Whereas le flou goes unnoticed in painting when skillfully used – it conceals the overly prominent traces of the brush on the canvas – in photography it must be justified because of its visibility. While le flou makes it possible to conceal the painter’s brushstrokes and thus the creative act itself, in photography it does just the opposite: it accentuates the technical gesture which the photographer seeks to conceal. On the canvas, it makes it possible to achieve a more natural image and enhances the effectiveness of the work. In photographs, it compromises this transparency, drawing a veil over an image presumed to be sharp, thereby revealing the inherent weakness of the technical artifice underlying the photograph. As François Brunet has shown, photography is based, in its beginnings, on the myth of an ‘a-technical’ image, ‘a technique without technique, a process that disappears within its naturalness and its power of faithfulness and accuracy’43 – a facsimile of nature that essentially paints itself unaided. Le flou has the opposite effect in painting and photography: in painting, it conceals the technique of painting and thus suggests the autonomy of the representation on the canvas; in photography, it links the photograph to its technical foundation and hence to the conditions of its production.

15This initial distinction gives rise to another, which has to do with the relationship between le flou and reality. Le flou of painting is a means for representing reality; that of photography, by contrast, distances the representation from the depicted scene by clouding the transparency of the image. When it enters the realm of photography, le flou ceases to be an aesthetic and artistic quality and instead becomes a visual defect. It takes on a meaning that is not ascribed to it by the criticism of painting but will go on to become its primary signification in the twentieth century: the lack of clarity. Before the invention of photography, the concept could not have included the notion of visual deficiency, since painting did not impose sharpness as a requirement for the image. Le flou was simply one among a number of different manners for painting reality; it was even a constitutive element of oil painting. As soon as it enters the vocabulary of photography, however, the term acquires a negative connotation, one in opposition to the notion of accuracy – the new standard of representational visibility. The photographic image no longer allows one to choose among several different ways of representing reality, one of which is le flou; instead, it forces one to choose a particular convention, that of perfect clarity. Le flou thus becomes the opposite of the required manner of representation and consequently proves incompatible with the transparency of the representation, for which – in the realm of painting – it had been an essential precondition.

On le Flou of Painting in Photography

  • 44 Eugène Delacroix, ‘Revue des arts,’ Revue des deux-mondes, September 1850: 1139–46, quoted in André (...)
  • 45 Henri de la Blanchère, L’Art du photographe … (Paris: Amyot éditeur, 1860) (2nd revised and correct (...)
  • 46 For example by Paul Périer in his discussion of the ‘trendy’ photographers whose works were display (...)

16It is by no means my intention to ignore the artists who, as early as the 1840s, rebel against what they perceive to be photography’s excess of precision. According to Eugène Delacroix, the daguerreotype constitutes a ‘copy that is poor, as it were, by dint of being accurate.’44 Hence the investigations of Henri de la Blanchère and his interest in photography on paper: ‘Only very rarely do we examine a loved one’s features from such a short distance away that we can distinguish the level of detail contained in a photograph. Wouldn’t it be better to strive for a little bit more of an overall impression?’45 Nevertheless, he carefully avoids the term ‘flou,’ whose connotations in photography are too negative and too technical. The discussion, instead, takes place around the ‘sacrificing of detail,’ to which the daguerreotype does not lend itself, unlike photography on paper. And while le flou is, for the most part, absent from this discussion, there are frequent references to the notion of an ‘effect.’ Synonyms like ‘indistinct’ [vague], ‘misty’ [vaporeux], and ‘soft’ or ‘mellow’ [moelleux], which were already used as equivalents for flou by critics of painting, are also employed.46 The juxtaposition of the quotations from de la Blanchère and Belloc reveals the uneasiness that surrounds the notion of le flou in the earliest critical literature on photography. While it seems to be awkward for the proponents of le flou to use the term when discussing the sacrificing of detail, it cannot be entirely excluded from the debate. That Belloc links and then rejects the two notions en bloc while de la Blanchère attempts to differentiate between them, shows that a confusion between the two terms is indeed possible, and that the ‘theory of the sacrifice’ is closely related to le flou.

  • 47 Roger de Piles, The principles of painting …; to which is added, The balance of painters. Being the (...)

17In the theory of painting, the primary aim of the sacrificing of detail is to enable the representation to correspond as closely as possible to the human sense of sight, which focuses clearly on a central point while leaving the surrounding area indistinct, increasingly so as one moves further away from the focal point. This desire for ‘realism’ is at the heart of the theory developed by Roger de Piles in 1708: ‘Now the eye is at liberty to see all the objects about it, by fixing successively on each of them; but, when ’tis once fix’d, of all those objects, there is but one which appears in the centre of vision, that can be clearly and distinctly seen; the rest, because seen only by oblique rays, become obscure and confused, in direct proportion to their distance from direct rays.’47 In order not to scatter the viewer’s gaze, the artist must eliminate certain details in an effort to focus attention on the central subject. For critics of painting, the sacrificing of detail goes hand in hand with the notion of le flou, since both have the same mimetic function, whose purpose is to bring the representation of reality into line with the human experience of seeing.

18In photography, le flou loses its mimetic power, but the sacrificing of detail retains its full value for its proponents. In 1851, Francis Wey explains:

  • 48 F. Wey, ‘Théorie du portrait II,’ La Lumière, 1851, no. 13 [May 4]: 51.

19‘The bolder, more striking, and more minute the details, the more they are accentuated by the daguerreotype and the more vividly it reproduces them. As a result, the head – the principal subject – fades from view, becomes tarnished, loses its interest and cohesion, and everything shimmers, without the viewer’s attention having anywhere to focus. The theory of the sacrifice, which was practiced so extensively by Van Dyck, Rubens, and Titian, must be followed even more strictly by the heliographic artist. As a rule, these great painters made the heads of their figures shine in the midst of a somber and hazy [vaporeuse] atmosphere; then their backgrounds, which grow darker as they recede, merge along the shoulders with the folds of the figures’ garments, which are broadly suggested in a dark and solid impasto. These artists avoided outlining the human form from head to foot, and unlike certain daguerreotypes, their portraits do not resemble rotting codfish on a silver plate. What is the purpose of these sacrifices involving the distribution of light and the elimination of certain details? It is to focus attention on the figures.’48

  • 49 Henri de la Blanchère, ‘études photographiques,’ La Lumière, 1857, no. 5 [January 31]: 18–19.

20The legacy of the theory of painting is quite palpable in this passage, and one has the sense that the notion of le flou is present without being named. For Henri de la Blanchère, visual mimesis is the central point of his argument for eliminating detail: ‘Let us consult our eye; it will tell us that in overall views [vues d’ensemble], the details fade and come together into general masses that grow larger as we move further away and take in a larger area … And now what will we do if we are wise, that is, if we are artists? We will heed this advice and sacrifice the details if we want to emphasize the overall scene.’49 Nevertheless, le flou, which went together with this theory in painting, breaks off from it in the criticism of photography.

  • 50 Charles Baudelaire, Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude, ed. and trans (...)

21It is le flou of painting theory to which Francis Wey and Henri de la Blanchère refer in their remarks on photography, without, however, being able to use the term: an aesthetic device which makes it possible to achieve ‘the sweetness [douceur] of a work of art,’ in the words of Félibien’s definition, and to perfect the mimetic illusion of the representation. Le flou described in writings on photography – a technical defect that interferes with the realism and accuracy of the daguerreotype – is not a suitable vehicle for the expression of their artistic aspirations. The earliest theorists of le flou in photography find themselves in the paradoxical position of invoking a painterly notion of le flou, one that is mimetic, deliberate, and fully embraced by the artist, while simultaneously rejecting le flou of photography, which is a technical defect of the image. The fact that, at this time, le flou had a negative connotation in photography while critics continued to refer to a painterly species of flou as having artistic value explains why Henri de la Blanchère cannot associate the sacrificing of detail with le flou, whereas Auguste Belloc does not hesitate to do so. In 1865, in a letter to Mme Aupick, Baudelaire clearly expresses this paradoxical painterly flou of photography when he asks that she have her portrait taken but on condition that she avoid mediocre photographers: ‘They think a good picture is one where all the warts, wrinkles, faults, all the coarse features of a face are rendered visible in a highly exaggerated form. The more severe the image is, the happier they are … There’s almost nowhere but Paris where people know how to carry out my wishes and make an exact portrait, but one that has the soft lines [le flou] of a drawing.’50

Notes

1 Henri de la Blanchère, ‘études photographiques (2ème article),’ La Lumière, 1857, no. 6 (February 7): 23.

2 Auguste Belloc, Le Catéchisme de l’opérateur photographe, traité complet de photographie sur collodion. Traité complet de photographie sur collodion (Paris: published by the author, 1857), 94–95.

3 Michel Poivert, ‘Degenerate Photography? French Pictorialism and the Aesthetics of Optical Aberration,’ Études photographiques, no. 23 (May 2009): 192–206.

4 William J. Newton, ‘Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and Its Relation to the Arts,’ Journal of the Photographic Society, March 3, 1853: 6–7, reprinted in Photography: Essays and Images, ed. Beaumont Newhall, 79–80 (New York: MoMA, 1980).

5 It would require a more in-depth examination to explain the use of the terms ‘out of focus,’ ‘soft-focus,’ ‘blur,’ and ‘fuzzy.’

6 Elizabeth Eastlake, ‘[Photography],’ The Quarterly Review [London], no. 101 (1857): 462. For a commentary on this text (together with a French translation of it), see Elizabeth Eastlake and François Brunet, ‘“Et pourtant des choses mineures…,”’ Études photographiques, no. 14 (January 2004): 105–121.

7 English uses different terms to refer to le flou in painting from those associated with photography. A French-English dictionary from 1853 contains this definition: ‘Flou: adv. (painting) lightly, softly, fluidly’ (John Charles Tarver, The Royal, Phraseological English-French, French-English Dictionary [London: Dulau & Co., 1853], 369).

8 For a history of the discovery of le flou in painting, see Marc Wellmann, Die Entdeckung der Unschärfe in Optik und Malerei: Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Wissenschaft zwischen dem 15. und dem 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005). As a German speaker, however, Marc Wellmann does not explore the term flou and its evolution in art criticism; his analysis focuses exclusively on painters’ discovery of le flou as a visual phenomenon, whatever words are used to describe it in the primary sources of the time.

9 André Félibien, Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres arts qui en dépendent: avec un dictionnaire des termes propres à chacun de ces arts (Paris: chez Jean-Baptiste Coignard, 1676), 596.

10 It is not until 1932 that the Académie loosens – albeit extremely discreetly – the term’s exclusive connection with painting, indicating that the word ‘is primarily employed with reference to painting’ (Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1932–1935, 8th ed.; my emphasis).

11Flou is a word that is never heard outside the artist’s studio and is only understood by members of the art world’ (Claude-Henri Watelet and Pierre-Charles Lévesque, Dictionnaire des arts de peinture, sculpture et gravure [1792], [Geneva: Minkoff Reprint, 1972], 329).

12 Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, Dictionnaire national ou dictionnaire universel de la langue française (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1856), vol. 1, 1270.

13 Honoré de Balzac, A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Ève); and, Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes Mariées), ed. George Saintsbury, trans. R.S. Scott (London: J.M. Dent, 1897), 2–3. [I’ve altered the translation to better reflect the original French as well as to highlight the relevance of the passage for the author’s argument – The translator]

14 Honoré de Balzac, A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Ève); and, Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes Mariées) (note 13), 51.

15 Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 17 vols. (Paris: Briasson, David l’aîné, Le Breton, Durand, 1751–72), vol. 6, 880–81.

16 Definition of ‘flou’ in émile Littré, Dictionnaire de la langue française (2nd ed.) (Paris: L. Hachette, 1873–74), 2:1704.

17 Definition of ‘sec’ [literally ‘dry,’ but the word has other meanings as well; it is variously translated as ‘dry,’ ‘hard,’ and ‘cold’ in the present essay – The translator] in Antoine-Joseph Pernety, Dictionnaire portatif de peinture, sculpture et gravure (1757), (Geneva: Minkoff Reprint, 1972), 513.

18 Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie (note 15), 880–81.

19 Charles Nodier, Dictionnaire raisonné des onomatopées françaises (Paris: Demonville imprimeur-libraire, 1808), 87.

20 Claude-Henri Watelet and Pierre-Charles Lévesque, Dictionnaire des arts de peinture, sculpture et gravure (note 11), 330.

21 Wolfgang Ullrich, Die Geschichte der Unschärfe (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 2002), 9–19.

22 Théophile Gautier, Critique d’art, ed. Marie-Hélène Girard (Paris: éd. Séguier, 1994), 149; the quotation is from the Moniteur universel of September 4, 1859.

23 Louis Marin, On Representation, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 379–80 .

24 Louis Marin, On Representation (note 23), 311–12.

25 Alexander Nagel, ‘Leonardo and Sfumato,’ Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 24 (Fall 1993): 7–20, here 16.

26 Paul-Louis Roubert, L’Image sans qualités: les beaux-arts et la critique à l’épreuve de la photographie, 1839–1859 (Paris: Monum/éd. du Patrimoine, 2006), 80.

27 A. Claudet, ‘Sur un nouveau procédé pour donner une égale netteté à tous les plans d’un corps solide représenté dans une épreuve photographique,’ Bulletin de la société française de photographie (BSFP), no. 12, September 1866: 226.

28 Paul-Louis Roubert, L’Image sans qualités (note 26), 92.

29 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857 (suite et fin),’ BSFP, no. 3, September 1857: 276.

30 André Gunthert, ‘La Conquête de l’instantané. Archéologie de l’imaginaire photographique en France, 1841–1895’ (doctoral dissertation for the école des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1999), available online at http://issuu.com/lhivic/docs/la-conquete-de-l-instantane.

31 Auguste Belloc, Le Catéchisme de l’opérateur photographe (note 2), 10. The passage is reproduced verbatim in his Photographie rationnelle. Traité complet théorique et pratique… of 1862 (Paris: Dentu, 1862), 55.

32 Francis Wey critiques a photograph by Blanquart-Évrard in the following terms:

‘While the effect is apt, it is deeply tinted: it looks as if a veil were interposed between the objects and the viewer. It would be incorrect, however, to attribute these apparent imperfections to the photographer; they are entirely the product of nature.’ (Francis Wey, ‘Album photographique de M. Blanquart-évrard,’ La Lumière, 1851, no. 33 (September 21): 130–31.

33 ‘The fibrous texture of the paper, its bumps and pits, the capillary communication that forms between different parts of the surface which are saturated unequally – all of these are obstacles that interfere with the absolute rigor of the lines and the precise gradation of shadow and light: the precision of the image leaves something to be desired; the details are muddier, the features stand out less clearly’ (Auguste Belloc, Compendium des quatre branches de la photographie … [Paris: published by the author, Bureau du Cosmos, and Chez Dentu, 1858], 40).

34 Marc-Antoine Gaudin, Traité pratique de photographie: exposé complet des procédés relatifs au daguerréotype (Paris: J.J. Dubochet et Cie, 1844), 124. Between 1840 and 1860, there is a wide ranging debate on whether or not models should be forbidden to blink when the photograph is taken.

35 Edmond de Valicourt, ‘De l’exposition à la lumière – généralités sur les portraits photographiques – dispositions à prendre pour les bien exécuter,’ BSFP, no. 7, September 1861: 235.

36 F.A. Renard, ‘Rapport du jury central de l’exposition des produits de l’industrie de 1849,’ La Lumière, 1851, no. 4 (March 2): 44.

37 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857’ (note 29): 276.

38 Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, ‘Avertissement,’ Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine ou Analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions applicables à la pratique des actes plastiques, 1862, pp. V-XI, as quoted in André Rouillé, La Photographie en France – Textes et controverses: une anthologie 1816–1871 (Paris: Macula, 1989), 446; my emphasis.

39 Auguste Belloc, Photographie rationnelle (note 31). In the nineteenth century, flou is still considered an adverb, which thus does not agree with the noun as an adjective would.

40 Auguste Belloc, Photographie rationnelle (note 31), 224.

41 Eugène Disdéri, L’Art de la photographie (Paris: published by the author, 1862), 260.

42 Anonymous, ‘Rapport sur l’exposition ouverte par la Société en 1857’ (note 29): 285.

43 François Brunet, La Naissance de l’idée de photographie (Paris: PUF, 2000), 90–91.

44 Eugène Delacroix, ‘Revue des arts,’ Revue des deux-mondes, September 1850: 1139–46, quoted in André Rouillé, La Photographie en France (note 38), 406.

45 Henri de la Blanchère, L’Art du photographe … (Paris: Amyot éditeur, 1860) (2nd revised and corrected ed., 1st ed. 1859), 14.

46 For example by Paul Périer in his discussion of the ‘trendy’ photographers whose works were displayed at the Universal Exposition of 1855: ‘All or almost all of them compete to see who can be most microscopic in his dissection of reality and probe most relentlessly into its details, unaware – alas! – that a fitting degree of indistinctness [vague] in the forms is the melody of painting’ (Paul Périer, ‘Compte-rendu de l’Exposition universelle, deuxième article,’ BSFP, September 1855, no. 1: 264) Francis Wey has this to say about Charles Nègre: ‘His Petit Chiffonnier is at one and the same time solid and misty, like a drawing by M. Bonvin: it is the most skillful and most fleeting sketch,’ and this about a calotype portrait by M. Leblanc: ‘The light is brilliant, and the finish is exquisite without being hard: it possesses the softness and mellowness [moelleux] of a good painting.’ (F. Wey, ‘Album de la Société héliographique,’ La Lumière, 1851, no. 15 [May 18]: 57–58).

47 Roger de Piles, The principles of painting …; to which is added, The balance of painters. Being the names of the most noted painters, and their degrees of perfection in the four principal parts of their art…, trans. Anonymous (‘By a Painter’) (London: J. Osborn, 1743), 66.

48 F. Wey, ‘Théorie du portrait II,’ La Lumière, 1851, no. 13 [May 4]: 51.

49 Henri de la Blanchère, ‘études photographiques,’ La Lumière, 1857, no. 5 [January 31]: 18–19.

50 Charles Baudelaire, Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude, ed. and trans. Rosemary Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 237–38.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Pauline Martin, « ‘Le Flou of the Painter Cannot Be le Flou of the Photographer’ », Études photographiques, 25 | mai 2010, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 21 mai 2014. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques/3450. consulté le 13 décembre 2017.

Auteur

Pauline Martin

Pauline Martin received her DEA from the école des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and completed her curatorial training at the Institut National du Patrimoine. She worked as an associate curator at the Musée de l’élysée in Lausanne and the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Paris. She is currently conducting a research project on the notion of le flou in French photography criticism.

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