Louis Daguerre life and biography

Louis Daguerre picture, image, poster

Louis Daguerre biography

Date of birth : 1787-11-18
Date of death : 1851-07-10
Birthplace : Cormeilles-en-Parisis, France
Nationality : French
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-03
Credited as : Artist painter, designer, painting with light

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Louis Daguerre is sometimes called the father of photography, for it was his technique, known as the daguerreotype, that created, in 1839, the first practical photographic image with realistic detail. The result prompted the French artist Paul Delaroche, as quoted by Richard Cork in the New Statesman, to proclaim: "From today, painting is dead." Daguerre, himself a painter and set designer, made no such outlandish claims for his invention. As noted by Allison Eckardt Ledes of Magazine Antiques, Daguerre explained: "The daguerreotype is not an instrument to be used for drawing nature, but a chemical and physical process which allows nature to reproduce itself."

Though a cumbersome and lengthy process, and indeed only one of several early techniques for capturing lasting images, the daguerreotype became an international sensation and opened the Pandora's box of photography. Daguerre's invention led ultimately to modern photography as we now know it, a medium both for realistic recording of the world, as well as for an artistic interpretation of such reality.

A Painter and Designer

Daguerre was born in 1787 into a middle-class family in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, near Paris. He began training as an architect's apprentice when he was about thirteen years old. Three years later, however, he abandoned this profession to enter the studio of the major set designer for the Paris Opéra. His interests were in creating immense panoramic paintings, and set design fit with these interests, as did a stint in the studio of Pierre Prévost, who created panoramic canvases of such verisimilitude that it gave viewers the illusion that they were actually in the scenes depicted. Daguerre remained with Prévost for eight years and became well known in Paris for his painting, exhibiting his work at the prestigious Paris Salon, beginning in 1814. His works were known for their visual detail as well as the attention to the effects of light.

In painting, Daguerre, like many other artists, used the camera obscura as an aid. This device had been around for centuries by the time of Daguerre, having developed from the observations of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the work of eleventh-century Egyptian scientist Ibn al-Haitham. Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci built further on these light theories to show that when a small hole of light is allowed in a dark room, images from outside will be illuminated upon a piece of paper in the room, reduced in size and upside down, but featuring natural shapes and colors. The Italian phrase for "darkened room" is "camera obscura," and thus the name for this imaging system.

Over the centuries, others kept improving the camera obscura through the employment of lenses and mirrors to correct the image. By the late seventeenth century a German monk had reduced the darkened room to a small box about nine inches by twenty-four; the resulting image was illuminated straight onto tracing paper, thus allowing images to be easily copied. Daguerre's use of the camera obscura would influence not only his own art, but ultimately lead him to try to capture the illuminated image chemically.

Meanwhile, however, Daguerre was busy making a name for himself as painter and designer. After leaving the Prévost studio, he worked successfully for numerous Parisian theaters, designing stage curtains and sets for productions from operas to melodramas. As Grant B. Romer noted in Grove Art Online, Daguerre's "romantic and picturesque inventions and dramatic illusionistic lighting effects greatly added to [the] popularity" of such productions. His experience with theatrical design as well as with the painting of large canvases for public display ultimately led Daguerre to experiment with the diaphanorama, a stage effect that helps change scenes by lighting on translucent canvas.

Working with a partner he had known from his days at the studio of Prévost, Daguerre created huge paintings ranging from scenes depicting Alpine landscapes to the moody interiors of chapels. These paintings, as large as forty by seventy feet, were done on translucent canvas, and with both back and front lighting effects, he was able to give the illusion of change of daylight or of figures appearing and disappearing in such scenes. These scenes were displayed in a darkened circular auditorium which itself was able to rotate in order to enhance the illusion of movement and also for viewers to see various scenes during well-attended half-hour shows. Daguerre and his partner called their entertainment the Diorama, and it became so popular in 1820s Paris that he ultimately opened a second establishment in London, near Regent's Park.

Painting with Light

Despite such successes, however, Daguerre continued to be intrigued with new ways to create images. Experimenting with phosphorescent paint to make the images cast by the camera obscura glow in the dark for his Diorama paintings, he began to wonder if there was not a chemical that would fix or capture such images permanently. He learned that a man named Joseph Niépce was experimenting in this very same area. In 1827, Niépce exposed a pewter plate coated with an asphalt substance for eight hours in a camera obscura and captured a blurry but identifiable image of the view outside his window. Niépce dubbed this picture a "heliograph." This was actually the world's first permanent photograph, but the process did not yield a distinct image and took far too long. The two men met later that year and formed a partnership.

When Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre continued to improve on his late partner's innovations. Firstly, he used a copper plate and replaced Niépce's asphalt substance with silver iodide, which is unstable in the presence of light. When it decomposes with exposure, silver iodide leaves metallic silver behind, and images can be captured. Others had recognized this property of silver iodide, but the problem had always been that such images ultimately faded because patches of unaffected silver iodide would also ultimately decompose in ambient light. Daguerre's innovation was, first, to shorten the time of exposure of images from eight hours to about twenty minutes, and secondly, to discover a method to "fix," or make such images permanent.

Accidental Discovery

Accident played a large part in Daguerre's innovations. One day in 1835, when storing an exposed plate in a cupboard, a thermometer broke, releasing mercury vapor. Discovering that the latent or hidden image on the plate had developed because of the mercury vapor, Daguerre began to treat his plates with mercury fumes to greatly shorten processing time of his daguerreotypes. Two years later he discovered that by bathing the plate in a solution containing common table salt he could make the image permanent. Later he began using sodium thiosulphate, also known as hyposulphate, which gave its name to the "hypo," or the fixing bath photographers have used for conventional photographic development ever since.

Now that he had a workable photographic system in hand, Daguerre tried to capitalize on his invention. However, his reputation worked against him initially. Teaming up with Niépce's son, Isidore, he tried to sell the invention to a European government or by private subscription. However, his work as an illusionist made people doubt the reality of the daguerreotype and Daguerre was timid about letting out much information about the work in case somebody else would steal the invention. Finally Daguerre convinced the influential scientist François Arago of the authenticity of his invention. Arago, in turn, demonstrated the invention before the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, and a formal announcement of the discovery was made.

The newspapers of the day made much of the invention. Writing in the History of Photography, Robert Leggat quoted London's Literary Gazette for January 7, 1839: "We have much pleasure in announcing an important discovery made by M. Daguerre, the celebrated painter of the Diorama. This discovery seems like a prodigy. It disconcerts all the theories of science in light and optics and, if borne out, promises to make a revolution in the arts of design." However, it was also pointed out by contemporary accounts, that Daguerre's invention had distinct limitations. Missing from his panoramic views of the Parisian boulevards in his daguerreotypes were the inhabitants of the city. The length of exposure needed meant that moving objects, such as pedestrians, would be lost from the image. Thus, portraiture became the principle use of such daguerreotypes. Also, daguerreotypes were one-time images and could not be copied or reproduced.

Sells Patent to the Government

Nonetheless, Daguerre's invention became a sensation that far outshined his Diorama. His patent was acquired by the French government, which paid Daguerre a pension of six thousand francs annually. France thereafter made the process a gift to the world, except in England, where the ever-prescient Daguerre had taken out a separate patent. On the strength of his pension, he retired to the Parisian suburb of Bry-sur-Marne, where he authored a manual to his process and saw it through numerous editions. He also continued to make improvements to the daguerreotype, and went back to his first love, painting.

Although the daguerreotype plate was made much more light sensitive by a second fuming with chlorine, ultimately the process gave way to one developed at roughly the same time in England by William Henry Fox Talbot, using paper coated with silver nitrate or silver chloride to create a negative image. This negative could then be turned into a positive image with further exposure to light sensitized paper, thus creating reproducible images, or multiple positive copies from a single negative.

Despite the importance of such contemporary and later innovations and inventions, it is Daguerre, the master of self-promotion and illusion, who became a national hero and is remembered as one of the founders of photography. Daguerre also became a photographer in his own right, using his daguerreotypes to capture the world around him. As noted on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site: "From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character--as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool--and Daguerre promoted his invention on both fronts." Daguerre photographed not only still life art subjects, but also chronicle the natural world, photographing shells and fossils through magnifying lenses. He died in Bry-sur-Marne on July 10, 1851. A monument in his memory was erected in the cemetery of Bry San Marne, France, by the Societé Libre des Beaux Arts on August 11, 1851. A sculpted bust of Daguerre was presented to the U.S. Government by the Photographic Association of America and unveiled in the Smithsonian Museum on August 15, 1890.

Born November 18, 1787, in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, France; died of a heart attack, July 10, 1851, in Bry-sur-Marne, France.

Named to French Légion d'honneur, 1824, for painting Holyrood Chapel by Moonlight.


Inventor, scientist, painter, and early photographer. Paris Opera, Paris, France, set and stage designer; Théâtre Ambigu-Comique, Paris, stage designer, 1816; Opéra-Comique, Théâtre de l'Odéon, and Académie Royale de Musique, set designer; Diorama (exhibition of pictorial views), Paris, owner and operator. Exhibitions: 1814 Salon, Paris, France. Works included in permanent collection at Louvre, Paris.


* Historique et description des procédés du daguerreotype et du diorama (title means "An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama"), Susse Frères (Paris, France), 1839.

* Nouveau moyen de préparer la couche sensible des plaques destinées à recevoir les images photographiques, Bachelier (Paris, France), 1844.

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