Camille Sylvie’s Reading the Emperor?s First Order of the Day to the Army for the Italian Campaign in the districts of Paris, 1859
Camille Silvy’s work in pictures
The National Portrait Gallery’s “Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life” is that rare thing – an exhibition that introduces the British public to a major 19th-century artist whose name is hardly known beyond a small circle of curators and collectors.
Camille Silvy and the 19th-century whim for calling cards
Camille Silvy Photographer of Modern Life 1834-1910
Wildly popular in his own lifetime, Silvy’s dazzling career lasted only 10 years before the onset of devastating mental illness. Confined to a madhouse for the last three decades of his life, he died in 1910, all but forgotten. Only in the last quarter of the 20th century did students of the history of photography fully grasp the stature of an artist whose exploration of subtle effects of light precisely paralleled what his exact contemporary James McNeill Whistler was doing in painting. .
Born in 1834, Silvy entered the French diplomatic service before experiencing a coupe de foudre in front of a photographic display at the 1855 Paris World Fair. By 1859, he showed his early masterpiece River Scene, France at the first exhibition ever to present photographs as works of fine art. To take it, Silvy set up his camera on a bridge over the river in order to show both its banks, with the river between them meandering into the distance. It is a hot afternoon in high summer. On the left bank, a well-dressed couple are about to go boating, while on the right, farm labourers laze in a meadow. If these motifs sound vaguely familiar, it is because in the decades to come the Impressionists would make them their own.