L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Fashionable ladies in the embrace of technology - six photosculptures by François Willème, circa 1861-68

Marie-Anne Walewska, comtesse (later duchesse) Colonna-Walewski, née di Ricci. (Three images.)

A photosculpture is the representation of a figure or object in three dimensions made possible by taking a series of photos in the round and then using them as synchronized photo projections to create a sculpture. 

«Portrait d'une aristocrate.» (Five images.)

The process was developed by French painter, sculptor, and photographer François Willème in 1859. Calling the method sculpture photographique - photographic sculpture - he was awarded a French patent the following year, and an additional patent the year after that. (He also secured British and United States patents in 1864 and 1865, respectively.)

Matilde de Aguilera y Gamboa, madame de Fontagud, circa 1865. (Five images.)

Willème presented his invention to the Société française de photographie in May of 1861, but it was only after two more years, with financial backing and the forming of a corporation, that he was able to open a large studio at 42 Boulevard de l’Étoile. Close by the Arc de Triomphe, the studio's dominating feature was a vast laboratory in the form of a glass rotunda, forty feet wide and thirty feet high, constructed of iron mullions with blue and white panes of glass. 

Unknown lady. (Three images.)
Unknown lady. (Three images.)

The best society of the Second French Empire, members of the imperial family and the aristocracy, visited the gallery and were photographed for their sculptural portraits. Similar studios opened in London and New York. But after only a few years, and almost simultaneously with the prestigious and successful presentation of his photosculptures at the Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie in Paris in 1867, the vogue for this work faded and business fell off drastically. Though the workshop continued in his absence for some time, Willème left Paris the following year and retired to his hometown of Sedan.

Unknown lady. (Two images.)

The rotunda laboratory of Willème's atelier, 42 Boulevard de l’Étoile. (In 1864, the street name was changed to Avenue de Wagram, the name it still retains.)

To create a photosculpture Willème would arrange the subject on a circular platform in his top-lit rotunda laboratory, surrounded by twenty-four cameras (one every fifteen degrees). He would then photograph his subject setting off all of the cameras simultaneously. The full set of photographic images then contained the data for a complete representation of his subject in three dimensions.

The projector and pantograph, circa 1865.

Next he projected the individual photographs onto a screen. Using a device called a pantograph he then traced the outline of each image while the other end of the pantograph cut a thin sheet of wood into the same exact shape. The resulting wooden profiles were next assembled into a rough armature which would be filled in with clay or other suitable material, then finished and made ready to use, usually for a mold for casting.

An unfinished photosculpture, circa 1859. (Two images.)

The client had a choice of the size of his photosculpture; by adjusting the distance from the projector, Willème could enlarge or decrease the cutting path of the pantograph, and therefore the size of the finished sculpture. The client also had a choice of material as well. While by far the most frequent material seen in surviving examples is biscuit porcelain, plaster and terra-cotta were also used and, apparently, bronze and alabaster portraits were sometimes produced. The price of a photosculpture, depending on the size and materials used, ranged from 270 to 500 Francs, and the turnaround time needed for creating a piece was an astonishing - if this is accurate - mere two to four days.


Self-portrait of the artist, circa 1865.

Auguste François Willème  (27 May 1830, Sedan - 31 January 1905, Roubaix), French painter, sculptor, and photographer. The son of a liquor retailer, as a young child he took drawing lessons at a local school. In his teen years he moved with his family to Paris, where he was enrolled at l’École des beaux-arts de Paris, to study painting under Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, a specialist in history and portrait paintings. Willème also studied sculpture, making models for manufacturers of art bronzes, and by the early 1850s he was involved in photography. After his return to Sedan in 1868, he entered into a partnership with a local photographer, and gave drawing classes at Collège Turenne. In Sedan he also continued to make photosculptures. Sometime after 1885, he and his wife retired to Roubaix, near Lille, where died five years into the new century at the age of seventy-four.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Of a feather - four portraits of men and their parrots

Gentleman with a Pet Parrot, by Camilo Domeniconi, circa 1835.
Gentleman with a Parrot, by Jacob Jordaens, 1656. 
 Portrait of Cedric Morris, by Frances Hodgkins, 1930.
Young Man with a Parrot and Pomegranate, Niccolò dell'Abbate, circa 1540s.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Die weiße Reiterin - Therese Renz, circus equestrienne


Therese Renz (née Stark; 10 April 1859, Brussels - 29 September 1938, Berlin), equestrienne and circus performer. She was born the daughter of equestrienne Lina Wunderlich and circus director Wilhelm Stark. Her father abandoned the family while she was still very young and she was sent to live with a maternal aunt who ran a clothing boutique in Hamburg. But after attending a performance of Circus Renz, she convinced her mother and aunt to let her try her luck with the circus. So in 1872, at the age of thirteen, she was apprenticed with Circus Wulff, where she received extensive and intensive training. The following year, on her fourteenth birthday, she made her debut in Switzerland. 

Six portraits by Reutlinger, circa 1904. (In the first three she can be seen in the costume she wore for her Weisse Dame ("White Lady") act.) 
Album Reutlinger de portraits divers, vol. 25, featuring the portraits of Renz.

The acts she performed throughout her career would incorporate the particular talents of the different horses she worked with, but the performances always displayed her extraordinary skill as a horsewoman. Her work exemplified the highest level of dressage, the elements of which were those which one would today associate with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna: levades, courbettes, croupades, and caprioles. The horses would also perform the “Spanish Walk”, various dancing and bowing tricks, while Renz was most famous for the impressive feat of jumping rope while on horseback - horse and rider together.

Two photographs taken while Renz was in the act of jumping rope on horseback, circa 1900.

After lengthy tours of Germany and Switzerland, she signed on with Circus Renz, where she fell in love with one of the director's nephews, Robert Renz. The two were married in 1883 and later had a son, Hugo. Her husband's uncle's disapproval of the marriage caused them to leave the company and join Circus Herzog where, during the 1880's and 90's, she reached the height of her career. This was also when she developed her signature act, Die weisse Dame ("The White Lady") where, inverting the convention of an equestrienne's black habit and top hat, she dressed all in white - usually even including a white wig - to match her mount, the Lippizaner stallion, Conversana.

Circa 1904.
From an act inspired by the choreography of dancer Loïe Fuller, 1912.

The couple rejoined Circus Renz in 1893 but, sadly, due to financial difficulties, the circus was forced to closed only four years later. And in that same year her husband died. She continued to perform, to tour successfully, and in 1905 she traveled to the United States where she performed at the New York Hippodrome for fourteen months. But in 1913, having already lost her mother, he son died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. She considered retiring, but performing was her only means of support as Europe headed toward war.

Returning to Belgium, she formed her own traveling equestrian show which, besides her horses, also included ponies, Great Danes, zebras, and even two elephants. But after the outbreak of war, the show went bankrupt and, forced to sell her animals, she endured several years of great poverty. At the end of the war she was nearly sixty. But in 1923, now sixty-four, she made a comeback with the Busch Circus in Vienna. Riding her very appropriately named English Thoroughbred, "Last Rose", she went on to perform well into her seventies. She wrote a brief memoir in 1934. In the saddle almost till the very end, she died at the age of seventy-nine and was buried in Berlin's St. Hedwig-Friedhof I cemetery, next to her husband Robert, who had preceded her by forty-one years.  

1932, still performing at the age of seventy-three.

In an interview she gave near the end of her life to a French women’s journal, she was asked about her tumultuous life:

“If you had the opportunity to live your life again, knowing all you know, all the joys and all the anguish that await you, would you choose as you had chosen before?”

Therese slowly sat up, looked one second at her horses – and probably beyond them to the adventurous parade that had been this life – then she looked at me. This little woman suddenly seemed surprisingly large, with a beautiful new face of energy, pride, and passion.

“Before God I swear, knowing all the trouble, all the grief, but also the infinite joys that were my destiny, I would not like to change one line of my life story. Regret, you see, even one regret, is worse than bankruptcy.”