Niépce and Famille des Varaniens

The name of Niépce will always recall an uninterrupted succession of works and discoveries appertaining to heliography. — The Photographic and Fine Art Journal, 1854
As the story goes, in 1825 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) commissioned his cousin, Colonel David Niépce (1781–1869), to purchase a new camera obscura from the Parisian optical shop of Charles Chevalier (1804–1859). While at the shop, “The Colonel” –as David Niépce was called—showed Chevalier examples of Niépce’s heliographic work, which surprised and impressed them. Chevalier shared the news of Niépce’s work with another shop patron, the artist and chemist Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), who in turn reached out to Niépce to discuss the possibility of collaborating. And voilà… the famous partnership now credited with the invention of photography was formed.Niépce’s original heliographic process was an extension of already well-established etching and lithography techniques. In his endeavors, Niépce had collaborated with the young engraver, Auguste-François Lemaître (1797–1870), to whom he owes much credit for his advancements engraving with light (which may be considered the essential origin point for both photography and photomechanical printing).

Bisson, Reptiles. Famille des Varaniens, Genre Varan Merre, 1853. Heliogravure test print. Archives Famile Nègre

Niépce died in 1833, and in 1839 Daguerre officially made public his (their) invention of photography, the Daguerreotype. Over the following decade, the technological phenomena, termed photography by Sir John Herschel (1792–1871), proliferated. Unfortunately, photography’s usefulness in science, art and industry was limited because a practical and permanent method of reproducing photographs in print had yet to be invented. In fact, several of the great scientific minds in Europe tried and failed to directly etch the image onto the daguerreotype plate from which prints could be made.
By 1852, as fate would have it, the younger cousin of Nicéphore Niépce, Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (1805–1870), an accomplished scientist himself, made significant advancements in solving the problem of image reproducibility by returning to the elder Niépce’s principles of heliography on steel. Like his older cousin Nicéphore—and Daguerre, for that matter—Niépce de Saint-Victor collaborated with Auguste-François Lemaître (raising the question of whether Lemaître’s continuous role in the written history of the invention of photography and photomechanical reproduction is underrepresented). Lemaître contributed the application of an aquatint ground, a traditional etching technique, which enabled the etched steel plate to retain ink in large areas of tone—a challenge that had plagued inventors, including William Henry Fox Talbot.
We have seen that proof; its equality and exactness is incredible. When we think of the immense service this application of photography to engraving is about to render we are seized with admiration and enthusiasm. — La Lumière, October 31, 1853
The first photogravures produced by Niépce de Saint-Victor’s process were included in the French Academy of Sciences’ 1853 scientific volume examining the rare animals in the collection of the Museum of Natural History. Photographie zoologique ou représentation des animaux rares des collections du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle by Louis Rousseau and Achille Deveria was first issued with salted paper prints from negatives by the Bisson brothers; however, the Academy switched to the new ink-based photogravure process because of its permanence and “to give a new application to photography to make available to all the reproductions obtained by this marvelous process, reproductions so faithful that a magnifying glass alone will render perfectly all those qualities which escape the naked eye.” The volume is thus the first substantial publication illustrated with (reportedly) unretouched photogravures, as well as the first scientific book in France to contain photographs (Jeff Rosen, Art Journal, 1987, vol. 46, no. 4).
It must have been with great pride that Niépce de Saint-Victor and Lemaître inscribed a proof from the first successful unretouched plate for Photographie zoologique to the Colonelclosing a figurative circle of photography’s and photogravure’s first family.
We are grateful to have this object in our permanent collection, for no other piece ties together the history and future of ink-based photography as significantly as this beautiful and rare print.
Inscription Reads:A Monsieur le Colonel Niépce, hommage de la part de Mr Abel Niépce de St Victor. Gravure Heleiographique sur acier. par les procededes de M.M. de St Victor et Lemaître (graveur) To Colonel Niépce, tribute from Mr Abel Niépce de St Victor. Heleiographic engraving on steel by the procedures of M.M. de St Victor and Lemaitre (engraver)Provenance: André Jammes via Hans Kraus, 2014


Bann, Stephen. “Photographie Et Reproduction Gravée: L’ Économie Visuelle Au Xixe Siècle.” Etudes Photographiques / Société Française De Photographie. (2001): 22-43. Print.

Correspondence between Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, at Chalons, and M. Lemaitre, engraver at Paris, La Lumière, 1851, n. 1-9. Letter, January 1, 1827.

Eder, Josef M, and Edward Epstean. History of Photography. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.

Gernsheim, Helmut. The Origins of Photography. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982 p. 37

Hammann, J.M. Herman. Des Arts Graphiques Destinés a Multiplier Par L’impression: Considérés Sous Le Double Point De Vue Historique Et Pratique. Genève [etc.: JoëlCherbuliez, 1857.

Rosen, Jeff. “Naming and Framing ‘Nature’ In Photographie Zoologique.” Word & Image. 13.4 (1997): 377-391.

The Evolution of the Modern Lens. Address of the President, Mr. T. R. Dallmeyer, F. R. A. S., Etc., before the Royal Photographic Society, London, October 9, 1900. Reprinted from “The Photographic News.” (Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, Volume 31: 384).

The Photographic and Fine Art Journal. Vol. 7. New York: H.H. Snelling, 1854.

Translation of Niépce de St. Victor article from the 31 October 1853 issue of La Lumièreon heliographic engraving on steel plates appears in The Photographic and Fine Art Journal[7:3 (March), pp. 76-77] and later that year in Humphrey’s Journal[6:16 (Dec. 1), pp. 241-45].

The Photograph in Print, Multiplication and Stability of the Image by Sylvie Aubenas, Frizot, Michel. A New History of Photography, 1999.

The Photographic News. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, October 19, 1900.

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