As a history teacher, there are many people from the past I wish I could somehow have back for an afternoon to accompany me for a stroll or with whom I could sit down and have a good chat. Nadar is certainly one of those people. Born in Paris, France, in 1820, Nadar began his career as an writer, illustrator, and caricaturist for Le Charivari, a satirical newspaper.
A Nadar Caricaturization of Jacques Offenbach
It was through his work as a caricaturist that Nadar developed his artistic eye for portraits. He was already well known for his illustrations when he took to the new medium of photography, opening his first studio in 1854.
Nadar's Studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris
It was said by one contemporary that "all the outstanding figures of his era – literary, artistic, dramatic, political, intellectual – have filed through his studio." Nadar is said to have had a friendly and outgoing personality and was good friends with many of his portrait subjects.
Illustration by Nadar showing all the influential people who he had sketched during his newspaper days
Nadar was artistic, immensely imaginative, and possessed a flair for the dramatic. His photographic portraits became known not just for the quality of his work, but for bringing out the character of the subject as well. Nadar also used his creative talent to push the boundaries of early photography. His curiosity led him to be one of the first to attempt aerial photography from a balloon and he was the first to photograph the Paris catacombs using artificial light.
Nadar self-portrait in the Paris Catacombs photographed using artificial light
Nadar self-portrait in a balloon basket
Nadar's earliest surviving aerial photograph of Paris
As Nadar kept pushing the bounds of photography, he began dreaming of new ways to expand his abilities to take aerial photography. In 1863, he built a giant balloon with an enormous gondola. Dubbed "Le Géant" (or "The Giant"), the wicker gondola had a circumference of well over 300 feet (100 meters) and was about 15 feet tall. It included six rooms with four beds, restroom facilities, a balcony, and a lithograph press and darkroom to create prints that could be dropped to the earth – all without the inconvenience of having to land. The gondola also allowed for wheels to be attached, so that after landing it could be pulled by horses. By way of comparison, Nadar's 1863 Giant was a little larger in volume than today's Goodyear blimps.
"Le Géant" in Brussels, 1864
Crowds thronged to see Nadar's balloon, so much so that when Nadar visited Brussels, he became the first person to employ crowd control barriers (still called Nadar Barriers in Belgium).
Illustration of Nadar's balloon in flight
Sadly, Nadar's balloon crashed in Hanover on its second voyage and afterwards went on display at the Crystal Palace in London.
Illustration of the crash of Le Géant in Hanover
Recovered gondola after the crash
Although, Nadar's balloon did not survive for long, it made quite an impression on his friend Jules Verne, who used Le Géant as the inspiration for the novel Five Weeks in a Balloon. Nadar also serves as the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.
Michael Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon
Not only did Nadar have friends in the literary community, but Nadar was friends with nearly all the new French Impressionists. When the Adadémie des Beaux-Arts refused to display at the Salon the works of many of his friends (e.g., Cézanne, Degas, Guillaumin, Monet, Pissarro, etc.), Nadar, in 1874, allowed them to use his studio for an alternate exhibition of the first public display of impressionistic painters.
Coquelicots; environs d'Argenteuil by Monet,
One of the rejected works on display at the 1874 exhibition in Nadar's studio
In 1886, Nadar published the first photographic interview with the centenarian French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, with Felix Nadar conducting the interview and Paul Nadar, his son, taking the photographs.
Nadar interviewing Chevreul, 1886
Nadar died in 1910, but his work serves as inspiration for photographers today.
More of Nadar's photographs follow below:
The Apostle Preacher Jean Journet
Victor Hugo on his Deathbed
Paul Legrand as Pierrot
Profile of a Young Woman
Madame Lefranc and Paul Nadar
Le Bris with his Albatros II
Aerial Views of Paris
Workers in the Catacombs
360° Self-Portrait taken on a revolving chair