Debunking the Myth of How Early Photography Influenced Painting
It’s often said that the invention of photography “freed” painters from the need to slavishly represent reality in their work. If a photograph could capture a real-life scene in a matter of moments, then why spend days and weeks toiling over a painted version?
As such, the advent of photography in the mid-19th century has been cited as a key catalyst for art’s move into Impressionism and its emphasis on the transitory moment.
Indeed, in 1855 the Belgian painter Antione Joseph Wiertz wrote enthusiastically of a sense of liberation offered by the daguerreotype (a type of early photograph):
“Good news for the future of painting! [..] Let it not be thought that the daguerreotype kills art. No, it only kills the work of patience and pays homage to the work of thought.”
But there are problems with this story.
It ignores the direction that art was moving in before photography was popularised, and it oversimplifies the complex exchange of visual ideas that passed back and forth between painting and photography — a two-way dialogue that lasted well into the 20th century.
So what was the influence of early photography on the story of painting?
Painting in the Age of Photography
At the time of photography’s arrival — roughly the 1830s — Western painting was at a fascinating juncture after having moved through several overlapping phases over the past one hundred years, from Rococo to the “return to order” of Neoclassicism and then Romanticism.
An underlying question was at stake: where should an artist place their attention? Onto the real world of real people and places or inward to the imagination?
Photography entered this artistic milieu when the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the oldest surviving photographic print in 1826. Then, in 1837, Louis Daguerre successfully used a chemically-treated copper sheet to register a photographic image — with the daguerreotype becoming the first commercially available photographic process.