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Gustave Le Gray

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Gustave Le Gray
Gustave Le Gray, Self-portrait, late 1850s
Born30 August 1820
Died30 July 1884 (1884-07-31) (aged 63)
Cairo, Egypt
Known forPainter, draughtsman, sculptor, print-maker, photographer
Notable workDeveloped a number of photographic techniques
Palmira Maddalena Gertrude Leonardi
(m. 1844)

Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray (French: [lə gʁɛ]; 30 August 1820 – 30 July 1884)[1] was a French painter, draughtsman, sculptor, print-maker, and photographer. He has been called "the most important French photographer of the nineteenth century" because of his technical innovations, his instruction of other noted photographers, and "the extraordinary imagination he brought to picture making."[2] He was an important contributor to the development of the wax paper negative.


Gustave Le Gray was born on 30 August 1820 in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d'Oise.[1] He was an only child, and his parents encouraged him to become a solicitor's clerk, [citation needed] but from a young age, he aspired to be an artist. He was originally trained as a painter, studying under François-Édouard Picot and Paul Delaroche. His parents financed a trip to Switzerland and Italy so that he could study art abroad, and he lived in Italy between 1843-1846 and painted portraits and scenes of the countryside. In 1844, he met and married Palmira Maddalena Gertrude Leonardi (born 23 March 1823), a laundress who he had six children with, although only two survived into adulthood.[3]

Le Gray exhibited his paintings at the salon in 1848 and 1853.[1] He then crossed over to photography in the early years of its development.

He made his first daguerreotypes by 1847.[4] His early photographs included portraits; scenes of nature such as Fontainebleau Forest; and buildings such as châteaux of the Loire Valley.[4][5]

Self Portrait (circa 1851)

He taught photography to students such as Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Nadar, Olympe Aguado, and Maxime Du Camp.[4][6] In 1851, he became one of the first five photographers hired for the Missions Héliographiques to document French monuments and buildings.[5][7] In that same year, he helped found the Société Héliographique, the "first photographic organization in the world."[7] Le Gray published a treatise on photography, which went through four editions, in 1850, 1851, 1852, and 1854.

In 1855, Le Gray opened a "lavishly furnished" studio. At that time, becoming progressively the official photographer of Napoleon III, he became a successful portraitist. His most famous work dates from this period, 1856 to 1858, especially his seascapes. The studio was a fancy place, but in spite of his artistic success, his business was a financial failure: the business was poorly managed and ran into debts.[8] He therefore "closed his studio, abandoned his wife and children, and fled the country to escape his creditors."[4]

He began to tour the Mediterranean in 1860 with the writer Alexandre Dumas, père.[7] They encountered Giuseppe Garibaldi during the trip and Le Gray photographed Garibaldi and Palermo. His striking pictures of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Palermo under Sicilian bombardment became as instantly famous throughout Europe. Dumas abandoned Le Gray and the other travelers in Malta and joined the revolutionary forces as a result of a personal conflict.[9][8] Le Gray went to Lebanon, then Syria where he covered the movements of the French army for a magazine in 1861. Injured, he remained there before heading to Egypt. In Alexandria he photographed Henri d'Artois and the future Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and wrote to Nadar while sending him pictures. In 1862, his wife Leonardi returned to Rome, requesting and receiving 150 francs for financial assistance. In 1863, Leonardi asked Le Gray to provide her with a monthly pension of 50 or 60 francs.

He established himself in Cairo in 1864; earning a modest living as a professor of drawing, while retaining a small photography shop.[7] He sent pictures to the universal exhibition in 1867 but they did not really catch anyone's attention. He received commissions from the vice-king Ismail Pasha. From this late period there remain 50 pictures.

In 1868, a collection of photographic seascapes by Gustave Le Gray was donated by millionaire art collector Chauncy Hare Townshend to the Victoria and Albert Museum. (He had kept them in portfolios along with his watercolors, etchings and engravings; they therefore remained in excellent condition, preserved to museum standards almost since they were made.)[10]

On 16 January 1883, he had a son with the nineteen-year-old Anaïs Candounia. Registration of their sons birth was voided due to lack of proof of Leonardi's death. Le Gray died on 30 July 1884, in Cairo.[1] His only surviving child from his marriage to Leonardi, Alfred, was designated as his heir.

Technical innovations[edit]

Château de Chenonceau (1851)

His technical innovations included:


Le Gray documented French monuments on a mission for the French government with other French photographers.

He was a successful portrait photographer, capturing figures such as Napoleon III and Edward VII. He also became famous for his seascapes, or marine. He spent 20 years in Cairo, Egypt, but there are few works from this period.

World records for most expensive photograph sold at auction, 1999–2003[edit]

The Beech Tree (circa 1856)

In October 1999, Sotheby's sold a Le Gray albumen print "Beech Tree, Fontainebleau" for £419,500, which was a world record for the most expensive single photograph ever sold at auction, to an anonymous buyer.[13] At the same auction, an albumen print of "The Great Wave, Sète" by Le Gray was sold for a new world record price of £507,500 or $840,370 to "the same anonymous buyer" who was later revealed to be Sheik Saud Al-Thani of Qatar.[13][14][15][16] The record stood until May 2003 when Al-Thani purchased a daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey for £565,250 or $922,488.[17][18]


  • A practical treatise on photography, upon paper and glass by Gustave Le Gray, (translated by Thomas Cousins) London : T. & R. Willats, 1850.
  • Photographic manipulation: the waxed paper process of Gustave Le Gray by Gustave Le Gray. Translated from the French. London: George Knight and Sons, 1853.



Caroline Shaw has a piano piece inspired by Le Gray (because of the "blurring of the edges" and "slowly coming into focus", according to Shaw[19]) and Chopin's Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Le Corre, Florence. Gustave Le Gray, a poet with a passion for excellence. Archived 2008-12-25 at the Wayback Machine "Translated from the catalogue Une visite au camp de Châlons sous le Second Empire: photographies de Messieurs Le Gray, Prévot..., Paris: musée de l'Armée, 1996, pp. 130-131." Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  2. ^ a b J. Paul Getty Museum. Gustave Le Gray, Photographer. July 9 - September 29, 2002. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  3. ^ Aubenas, Sylvie; Gray, Gustave Le (2002). Gustave le Gray, 1820-1884. J. Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 9780892366712.
  4. ^ a b c d Daniel, Malcolm (October 2004). "Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 2018-05-08.
  5. ^ a b c d Janis, Eugenia Parry. Gustave Le Gray. (French, 1820–1882). Museum of Modern Art, "from Grove Art Online." Oxford University Press, 2007. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  6. ^ Denis Canguilhem, John Hannavy (ed.), Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1 (Routledge, 2007), p. 21.
  7. ^ a b c d "Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820 - 1884) (Getty Museum)". The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Retrieved 2018-05-08.
  8. ^ a b Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Thematic Essays. Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884). October 2004. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  9. ^ "Gustave Le Gray, Photographer (Getty Exhibitions)". www.getty.edu. Retrieved 2018-05-08.
  10. ^ "Gustave le Grey Exhibition". 25 January 2011.
  11. ^ a b Rosenblum, Naomi. A world history of photography, 4th edition. New York: Abbeville, 2007.
  12. ^ a b Peres, Michael R. The Focal encyclopedia of photography digital imaging, theory and applications, history, and science, 4th edition. Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier/Focal Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-240-80740-9
  13. ^ a b Melikian, Souren. Early photos appeal to modern buyers: shedding light on the lost past. International Herald Tribune, November 6, 1999. Retrieved September 14, 2008.[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Gefter, Philip (2006). "What 8,500 Pictures Are Worth". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-05-08.
  15. ^ "[The Great Wave, Sète] | Gustave Le Gray | 1976.646 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 2018-05-08.
  16. ^ Young, Marnin. "Photography and the Philosophy of Time: On Gustave Le Gray's Great Wave, Sète". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ Pinsent, Richard. The world's most expensive photograph. Forbes, May 30, 2003. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  18. ^ Christie's London sale of daguerreotypes by Girault De Prangey sets world auction record for a photograph at over $925,000. E-Photo Newsletter, Issue 59, July 3, 2003. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  19. ^ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001ts9c

Further reading[edit]

  • Parry, Eugenia. The photography of Gustave Le Gray. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago and University of Chicago Press, 1987. ISBN 0-226-39210-4
  • Aubenas, Sylvie. Gustave Le Gray, 1820-1884. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. ISBN 0-89236-672-9
  • Aubenas, Sylvie. Gustave Le Gray. London and New York: Phaidon, 2003. ISBN 0-7148-4234-6

External links[edit]