The Heliographic Mission of 1851, a picturesque and romantic journey through ancient France

The Heliographic Mission of 1851, a picturesque and romantic journey through ancient France

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Home ›Studies› The Heliographic Mission of 1851, a picturesque and romantic journey through ancient France

  • Square house, Nîmes.

    BALDUS Edouard Denis (1813 - 1889)

  • Pont du Gard.

    BALDUS Edouard Denis (1813 - 1889)

  • Porte de l'Aude and tower of the Bishop of the city of Carcassonne.

    LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

  • Chenonceau Castle.

    LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

To close

Title: Porte de l'Aude and tower of the Bishop of the city of Carcassonne.

Author : LE GRAY Gustave (1820 - 1884)

Creation date : 1851

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Storage location: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Gustave Le Gray / Auguste Mestral

Picture reference: 11-534505 / MH0007449

Porte de l'Aude and tower of the Bishop of the city of Carcassonne.

© Ministry of Culture - Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Gustave Le Gray / Auguste Mestral

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: December 2011

Historical context

The rediscovery of French monumental heritage

In gestation under the Ancien Régime, the notion of heritage really emerges thanks to the provision to the Nation of the goods of the clergy decreed by the Constituent Assembly on November 2, 1789, then acts of vandalism which multiplied in the aftermath of the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792. The creation of the Petits-Augustins depot placed under the care of Alexandre Lenoir on June 6, 1791 then its transformation into a French Monuments Museum four years later constitute the founding act of this taking of heritage awareness. During the first half of the XIXe century, the public authorities set up official institutions intended to conserve and restore the monuments of France. In 1851, one of them, the Commission des monuments historique, created in 1837, commissioned five photographers to document the heritage in order to facilitate the work of the architects of the Commission in charge of their restoration: the Heliographic Mission was born.

Image Analysis

A monumental history of the French nation

The five photographers selected by the Commission des monuments historique, Le Secq, Le Gray, Baldus, Mestral and Bayard, are all members of the very young Société Héliographique. Founded in 1851, the first learned photography society aims to promote the development of this invention, born in 1839. This public commission recognizes the usefulness of photography in the faithful reproduction of works and buildings. To provide a panorama of French architecture, 175 precious and ruined monuments scattered across France are attributed to the five photographers according to a geographical distribution.

Among them, Édouard Baldus, painter who hardly practiced photography before 1851 except for a few views of Arles, is in charge of a series of monuments located between Fontainebleau and the south-east of France, where many vestiges are listed. antique. Very quickly, it stood out for its architectural views which restore all the monumentality of the building, as in this image of the Maison Carrée de Nîmes, a Roman temple built in the Ier century, where a close-up shot highlights its classic colonnade while accentuating the monumental dimension of the whole. Another famous Roman building photographed by Baldus in the same region, the Pont du Gard is represented in a panoramic format. The rocky landscape in the foreground was added by the photographer using an intricate montage, a technique he was expert in, to add depth to the overall picture.

Gustave Le Gray and Auguste Mestral, who for their part crossed together a large area between the Loire and the South-West, mainly brought back photographs of monuments from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In Carcassonne, where they stayed eleven days, they took a large number of views which were among the most completed of their common work. One of them represents the Bishop's Tower seen from the Aude Gate. Rather than putting the city's imposing medieval fortifications in perspective, Le Gray and Mestral have drawn closer to them in order to highlight the tangle of geometric masses that they offer to the eye and to capture the play of light on the rough stone. In Chenonceau, on the contrary, it was the elegant and slender silhouette of the Renaissance castle that caught their attention in an overall composition with classical framing. The beautiful part that this image gives to the sky gives fullness to the building and its famous superimposed galleries that span the Cher.


The vogue of the Middle Ages

The monuments chosen reflect the priorities of the Commission responsible for awarding grants to listed buildings in need of urgent restoration. Carcassonne, for example, was the subject of extensive work directed by Viollet-le-Duc and very controversial. They also reflect his artistic preferences. These go rather to the Gallo-Roman and, above all, medieval eras, which offer the most remarkable testimonies of French art. The Renaissance, if it is nevertheless represented in the Heliographic Mission with the castles of the Loire, is far from being at the heart of the concerns of the Commission, as are the buildings of the XVII.e and XVIIIe centuries.

This craze for medieval monuments is part of a large movement of fantasized invention of this period, which developed in the wake of Genius of Christianity de Chateaubriand, published in 1802, and the Romantic movement. While historians are interested in this founding period for the French nation, the rise of archeology around Arcisse de Caumont and the proliferation of learned societies favor the study and preservation of medieval monuments. At the same time, the publication of Baron Taylor's monumental work, Picturesque and romantic journeys in ancient France, draws attention to the medieval ruins of France through his lithographs signed by great artists whose romantic approach to monuments has influenced generations of photographers, starting with those of the Heliographic Mission. Like Taylor, the latter favored works of Romanesque and Gothic art, creations par excellence of the French national genius.

  • patrimony
  • architecture
  • picturesque


Christian AMALVI, The taste of the Middle Ages, Paris, La Boutique de l'Histoire, 2002.Sylvie AUBENAS (dir.), Gustave Le Gray, 1820-1884, catalog of the exhibition organized by the B.N.F., March 19-June 6, 2002, Paris, B.N.F.-Gallimard, 2002. François BERCÉ, Historical monuments to heritage, from the 18th century to the present day, or the Misguidance of the heart and the mind, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.Ilaria CISERI, Romanticism: 1780-1860, the birth of a new sensibility, Paris, Gründ, 2004.Isabelle DURAND-LE GUERN, The Middle Ages of the romantics, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001.Maïté BOUYSSY (dir.), “Power of the neogothic”, in Companies & Representations, n ° 20, dec. 2005.Louis GRODECKI, The Middle Ages rediscovered, volume II “From Saint Louis to Viollet-le-Duc”, Paris, Flammarion, 1991. Jean-Michel LENIAUD, Archipelagos of the past: heritage and its history, Paris, Fayard, 2002. Anne de MONDENARD, The Heliographic Mission. Five photographers travel through France in 1851, Paris, Monum, Heritage Editions, 2002. Pierre NORA (dir.), Memorial place. The nation. The territory. The State. The patrimony, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Quarto", 3 vol., 1986.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "The Heliographic Mission of 1851, a picturesque and romantic journey through ancient France"