The Louis Daguerre Diorama is reborn in Bry-sur-Marne

1. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
Choir of a Gothic Church, 1842
Diorama (in restoration)
Oil on canvas - 513 x 597 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, church
Photo : Didier Rykner

Not content with having invented the photographic process bearing his name, the painter Louis Daguerre also created the Diorama, a theatrical method by which an immense canvas painted on both sides was animated by lights playing on the front or back alternatively, providing a veritable moving show from an immobile image [1]. In association with Charles-Marie Bouton, the artist opened the Diorama de Paris in 1822, which then disappeared after a fire broke out in 1839.

The one in Bry-sur-Marne (ill. 1), produced and then donated to the city in 1842, is the only Diorama created by Daguerre himself still in existence [2]. In 1839, the artist had bought a large property facing the parish church where the choir was opened in order to install the work. The canvas represents the choir of a Gothic church painted in ‘trompe l’oeil’ giving the illusion that the building continues behind the apse. The modulating natural light which entered through a glass opening on top and probably also through the sides, continually changed the aspect of the painting, making it seem notably as if the candles flickered on and off.

2. View of the choir of Bry-sur-Marne with Diorama
before the beginning of the restoration
Photo : All rights reserved

3. View of the choir of the church of Bry-sur-Marne
circa 1950
Photo : All rights reserved

Despite being listed as a historical monument in 1913, the Diorama spent the 20th century in a forlorn state (ill. 2), aggravated by several “restorations” between 1949 and 1975 which resulted in scraping the back and relining the canvas, thus ruining the transparency effects which were no longer presented anyway as the work was kept hidden behind a curtain by a suspicious, and even contemptuous, clergy who considered the device as unorthodox. There is no doubt that its listing probably saved it from further damage since the church was often vandalized in the 1970’s, as happened to many others. A photograph from the 1950’s shows the condition of the choir (ill. 3), where some niches are still visible (these disappeared in 1988 (!) and were replaced with openings decorated with stained-glass) holding statues as well as furnishings and paintings which have been lost today [3]…The sides of the choir, like the rest of the church, including the outside, were painted in white (ill. 4) at the beginning of the 20th century, thus depriving the building of most of its charm.

4. Church of Bry-sur-Marne
Photo : All rights reserved

The canvas would have continued to deteriorate had it not been for the mayor, Jean-Pierre Spilbauer, aware of its importance, who was passionately interested in Louis Daguerre’s work. The Art Tribune often calls attention to irresponsible elected officials who remain indifferent to cultural heritage but in this case we cannot help but commend this one who, besides deciding to have it restored, went about finding the necessary funding for the project. With substantial support from the government and the region, the city paid for the construction of a special workshop to house the Diorama while it was being repaired. At the same time, the mayor, with the help of several American specialists, contacted the Getty Foundation and obtained backing of $200.000 which covers half of the expenses, with the other half provided by the Ministry of Culture. Indeed, it would seem that Louis Daguerre is more famous and appreciated abroad, notably in the United States, than in France.

5. Diorama during the restoration
Photo : Didier Rykner

The restoration began in 2006 under the supervision of Dominique Dollé. Once again, we congratulate the mayor here for having decided, along with the city’s conservator, Margaret Calvarin, to refrain from setting a deadline and to only take into consideration the time needed for restoring the work, in fact a very delicate task requiring great care.
The first stage consisted in removing the dirt from the pictorial layer, the uneven and yellowed varnish, as well as the repainted areas. Then, between February 2007 and May 2009, work was done on the support. The old linen canvas used for the relining was taken off after consolidating the pictorial layer on the front. This revealed traces of white and pink paint, which gave it an effect of transparency, on the back despite the previous scraping. Only the central portion (the canvas is in three strips) showed these remains, meaning the luminous effects concerned only the strip in the middle.
The gaps in the original canvas were filled, the tears repaired and the deteriorations eliminated. A very light monofilament (single-thread) polyester canvas was applied to the back to consolidate the work allowing it to maintain its translucent aspect.
Currently, the restorers are reintegrating the pictorial layer (ill. 5) and the Ecole nationale Louis Lumière is filming the restoration process which can be followed on Internet thanks to two webcams which are turned on permanently (see here).

6. Model of the chruch of Bry-sur-Marne
by Catherine Ganz and Alois Ellmauer
Photo : Didier Rykner

7. Model of the church of Bry-sur-Marne
View on the choir with the Diorama
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Décor under the white painting
Choir og the church of Bry-sur-Marne
Photo : Didier Rykner

At the same time, the historical aspect of the Diorama is being studied as many of its mysteries still remain. In fact, there is no exact description of how this work was installed in the church choir which had been specifically adapted for it. Louis Daguerre himself left no specific instructions on the subject. Before beginning the restoration, the canvas hung flat at the back of the choir which could not have been the position in which it was operated as the sides are not visible. At first, it was put in a half-circle. This is the solution which has been explored so far thanks to a mockup created especially for this effect (ill. 6 and 7). But this does not eliminate the deforming effect of the scenes located on the columns on the left and the right. At the moment, the tendency would be to install it with the sides concave and the center convex thus rendering the ‘trompe l’oeil’ back to its normal position for a person looking at it in the church, based on an anamorphic effect. Whichever the choice, no one can ever be sure if it is the correct reconstitution. In the same way, it would be practically impossible to find the original animation scenes for the diorama, if only because the canvas has deteriorated over the years.

The church to which the Diorama is to return will also undergo restoration. Tests (ill. 8) have in fact shown that the colours on the choir walls remain under the white paint (the mockup reflects this – ill. 9), and it is probable that these changes were ordered by Daguerre himself as he wanted the church to be as dark as possible to enhance the effects of the light on the work. The building will also be equipped with the best possible conservation conditions for the diorama. After a tender, the architect who won out is Jacques Moulin who we hope will refrain from proceeding with the sort of foolish reconstitution he has carried out elsewhere [4]. It might be a good idea (this was put forward by Margaret Calvarin) for him to eliminate the recently installed windows in order to recover a state much closer to the one at the time of the diorama to better enhance its effects.

9. Model of the church of Bry-sur-Marne
The choir with the hidden décor under the white paint
Photo : Didier Rykner

10. Old Daguerre residence
Photo : Didier Rykner

However, the restoration of the Diorama is not the only Daguerre project which Bry-sur-Marne has launched. At the end of this month, it will sign the formal agreement to buy the old Daguerre residence (ill. 10) for 3.5 million euros. This will signal the start of a major operation for the creation of a museum devoted to the artist and inventor, housing the large collections owned by the city [5]. Besides just the museum, the buildings (a total of three) will include exhibition spaces, a documentation center on photography as well as a training facility with rooms to lodge students researching the history of photography. Bry-sur-Marne is not only Daguerre’s city, it also welcomes the headquarters of the INA and the SFP, two companies specialized in images. Surveys should begin in the fall and the mayor would like to inaugurate the Maison Daguerre in 2014. Ideally, this project will also have private financial backing but more partners are still needed [6].

The museum continuously adds works related to Daguerre. In the past few years, besides modern daguerreotypes (this technique is still used by many photographers), several paintings by Louis Daguerre [7] have joined the municipal collections [8] :

11. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
Pastel - 25 x 36.5 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Musée Adrien Mentienne

—  A pastel landscape (ill. 11), acquired in 2001 at Thierry Mercier and Hubert Duchemin’s by the Société Bryarde des Arts et des Lettres which donated it to the museum.

12. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
A View of the Mont Blanc, 1833
Oil on canvas - 96 x 140 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Musée Adrien Mentienne

—  A View of the Mont Blanc (ill. 12) : the work, painted in 1833, had remained at the Daguerre residence in Bry-sur-Marne until his death but was then donated to the mayor of the city by his widow ; his heirs kept it until it was sold to the city in 2002.

13. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
Scene from Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp
Oil on velvet - 13 x 18 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Musée Adrien Mentienne

—  A curious oil on velvet (ill. 13) probably representing one of the décors for the Aladdin, or magical lamp, music by Nicolas Isouard, François-Antoine Habeneck and Angelo Maria Benincori, with a libretto by Charles-Guillaume Etienne, created on 6 February 1822 [9]. This show had eight painted décors by Cicéri and Daguerre and used gas lighting, the first time ever on a stage. The work was acquired from a private collector in 2006.

14. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
Landscape, 1825
Oil on canvas - 19.5 x 28 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Musée Adrien Mentienne

—  Also in 2006, the museum acquired a landscape (ill. 14) from a private collection ; this seems to be a preparatory study for a diorama.

15. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
Elodie Clouds, 1822
Oil on canvas - 24.3 x 32.4 cm
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Galerie Talabardon & Gautier

—  In 2007, the city purchased a small painting probably representing Elodie Clouds (ill. 15) from the Talabardon & Gautier gallery ; this is the project for a décor in the second act, third scene of Elodie, a melodrama by Victor Ducange created at the Ambigu Comique on 10 January 1822-10.

16. Maurice Joron’s room
Photo : Didier Rykner

17. Maurice Joron (1883-1937)
Self-portrait, 1930
Oil on cardboard
Bry-sur-Marne, Musée Adrien Mentienne
Photo : Didier Rykner

Finally, we would like to point out that a gallery highlighting the works of the painter Maurice Joron (ill. 16) opened not far from city hall last April. The collection was donated to Bry-sur-Marne by his daughter Marie-Louise Joron along with the residence housing the ensemble. A student of Cormon, the artist is an honorable one as proven for example, by his self-portrait (ill. 17), recalling Jacques-Emile Blanche.

P.S. See the Diorama website of Bry-sur-Marne and the restoration.

For further information on Daguerre, the Diorama, daguerreotypes and early photography, readers will find it useful to go to this website, managed by the web archives of the British Library, and which includes several articles published in various journals by R. Derek Wood.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 26 mai 2010


[1] This is the same principle, but on a larger scale, behind the use of “transparencies” (see the article in French on the exhibition Lumière, transparence, opacité in Monaco in 2006).

[2] Two of the artist’s signatures have been found.

[3] The church housed at least 13 paintings ; they have all disappeared.

[4] About Jacques Moulin, see notably this article.

[5] The municipal museum, known as the Musée Adrien Mentienne, created in 1973 was housed in cramped spaces on the first floor of the city hall but has been closed since the beginning of the year as municipal offices are being refurbished. The museum includes collections on local history and archeology as well as works related to Daguerre and photography.

[6] We remind our readers that Bry-sur-Marne is only ten minutes or so from Paris on the commuter line RER A.

[7] The museum also owns a daguerreotype by Daguerre.

[8] The only complaint that might be made concerning the city’s cultural policy is that the museum is now closed and the new one won’t open for another four years at least…

[9] This date is generally accepted for the creation of the opera. And yet, the database Chronopéraquotes 9 February 1824…

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