Servants of Illusion

Eliza Browning (Class of 2022) explores how stereoscopy was featured at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris, focusing on a Disdéri photograph in the Wheaton Permanent Collection.

This essay was completed for Professor Ellen McBreen’s Fall 2018 class The Art of Writing About Art.

“The sparkle of the Exposition is dazzling,” one journalist wrote upon seeing the 1855 Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition) in Paris, “but one has difficulty seeing when dazzled.” Indeed, early visitors often found the grandeur of the Exposition overwhelming rather than enlightening. The sheer volume of goods and machinery on display forced tourists to adapt a rapid and superficial method of viewing reflective of the fast-paced industrial culture of the Second Empire, a way of seeing that was in itself “symptomatic of modernity.” Elizabeth Gralton argues that the new visual approach of the Exposition Universelle embodied the technological and artistic duality of 19th-century photography: “Just as the visual culture of the Expositions aimed to dazzle the eye through its sheer volume of accumulated objects, it also relied on deceiving the eye. One aspect of the visual culture of the Expositions that caused consternation was their tendency to produce illusions” (1). Stereoscopy, with it seemingly miraculous ability to produce illusion, was tangible proof of the industrial achievements of mid-century France in an age of new technologies. In particular, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri’s stereo daguerreotype View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle (1855) [Figure 1] demonstrates the commercial potential of stereography for an audience fixated by industrial production, travel, and exploration. The popularity of the Exposition Universelle, also documented and distributed by stereo cards, speaks to a period fascination with global knowledge and the marvels of new technology.

Figure 1. André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, “View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle of 1855, Paris, 1855. Stereoscopic daguerreotype. Wheaton College (Norton, MA) Permanent Collection. Purchased by Wheaton College. 2015.001.002

The Exposition Universelle of 1855 was originally conceived as a French response to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, and widely considered the first modern world’s fair. Comprised of four sections [Raw Material, Machinery, Manufacturers, and Fine Arts] and over 109,000 exhibits, the Paris Exhibition was a financial and critical success (2). Determined to outdo their English rivals, French organizers mounted an even greater exposition to showcase the technological prowess of their newly industrialized society. The 1855 Exposition Universelle drew more than five million visitors during its six-month stint on the Champs-Élysées. It featured luxury items, foreign goods, and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer items to appeal to the needs of middle and working class visitors (3). Although these products of “domestic economy” received little critical notice at the time, they were integral to the Exposition’s success as a celebration of commodity culture, in which “the display of goods was surpassed only by the display of people… who came to look at them” (4). Products both expensive and affordable, novelty and commonplace were housed in the cavernous Palais de l’Industrie, France’s answer to enduring popularity of the Crystal Palace in London. An architectural marvel, the Palais de l’Industrie epitomized the glamour of technological innovation. Still, much of the wonder of the Exposition was founded on visual deception. Exposition sites were designed as temporary demonstrations of modern industrial techniques, constructed in a way intended to deceive viewers into thinking they were viewing “traditional, expensive, labor-intensive, and hence prestigious, architectural materials.” Some critics condemned the Exposition’s visualization of society as one led by elite engineers and industrialists, claiming that it established illusion and falsity as necessities of modern life (5). However, its designers maintained that the techniques of mass production involved in the construction of the Exposition exemplified the revolution of industry transforming France into a nation of future. Thus the industrialization of the Exposition, like the products it displayed, contributed to the fascination with illusion that would come to define Second Empire Paris.

As Paris prepared to undergo a rapid process of industrialization heralded by the start of the mid-19th century, the fledgling photographic industry underwent a similar transformation. Photography, in its infancy in the 1830s, had by the 1850s shifted from an elite discipline of artistic expression to a commercially successful method of mass production. Formerly available only to specialized masters and the moneyed elite, photography had become “an increasingly standardized mass commodity produced by a burgeoning class of professionals.” As the daguerreotype was replaced by collodion negatives and albumen prints, the commercial properties of photography expanded to meet the public demand for mass-produced images. Enterprisers such as Disdéri built their fortunes through the production and dissemination of cheap photos, prompting one critic to exclaim “Now they want to confuse industry and art. Industry! We refuse to have anything to do with it” (6). According to scholar Shelley Rice, the transformation of the urban environment of Paris and the accomplishments of the medium are inextricably intertwined, in that “the same historical period that gave us the city of the industrial age also gave us the means to efficiently and cheaply reproduce and disseminate permanently fixed photographic prints” (7). The widespread popularity of photography was even typified in attitudes of the era; T. J. Clark posits that the typical Second Empire man was seen as “almost always a stock-exchange speculator or photographer,” because both were “servants of illusion.” Despite an increasing demand for the latest advancements of the medium, however, nothing transformed the popular image of photography as much as the 1849 invention of the stereoscope. The stereoscope, a novelty invention of its day, replicated binocular vision through the insertion of stereo cards consisting of two photos mounted on a sheet of metal or cardboard, almost identical but for a slight lateral shift made by a dual-lens camera. When viewed through a stereoscope, the images would fuse “to produce an effect of increased depth that not only recalled the three-dimensional illusionism of the diorama, but also entirely encompassed the viewer’s visual field” (8). Stereoscopes were especially popular among middle class families for their affordability and the sense of wonderment produced by the quality of the illusion. By 1856 the London Stereoscopic Company, whose motto was “No home without a stereoscope,” had sold an estimated 500,000 cheap stereo viewers (9). The accessibility of stereoscopic photography also enabled the populence to expand their knowledge of the world beyond their cities and towns. Travel, previously reserved for the privileged few, was replaced by the experiences made available by stereograph cards and world’s fairs, both of which created the illusion of travel in a way affordable to the general public. Suddenly, “architectural monuments, views of foreign cities, documentary records of foreign cities, and art objects from numerous countries- physically inaccessible to the average person- became, through photography, part of the cultural image-bank and filtered directly into the mainstream of Western society” (10). In this way the mass production of stereo cards not only fulfilled a sense of industrial accomplishment, but satisfied the public’s desire for travel and enhanced their global knowledge, an important commodity in an increasingly industrialized urban society.

The Exposition Universelle of 1855 marked the merge of stereoscopic photography with the burgeoning popularity of world’s fairs, both of which were perceived as learning tools, sources of amusement, and examples of industrial accomplishment. The stereoscope was first introduced to the public during the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, when Queen Victoria famously became captivated with the new invention. After the ensuing publicity, 250,000 stereoscopes and millions of stereo cards were sold within three months, and London’s most prominent daguerreotypists made views of the Crystal Palace to capitalize on the royal endorsement (11). Similarly, the Exposition Universelle of 1855 significantly increased public awareness of new advancements in photography. Several photographers were hired to document the construction of the Palais de l’Industrie, itself “a marvel of mass-production techniques,” and the Exposition included a special exhibit on photography featuring works by the Bisson brothers and a 360-degree photographic panorama composed of twenty-one plates of overlapping images by the painter Clausel (12). The stereoscope and other photographic equipment were displayed, and landscape and architectural photography were exhibited in the Fine Arts section. However, most photographic exhibits were classified with inventions such as telescopes and telegraphs, as examples of technological innovation. Anne McCauley notes that photography “provided a standard of objectivity against which all industrializing countries could measure their economic accomplishments. Its triumph paralleled the ascendancy of the centralized, bureaucratic state… contingent upon an ever-increasing flow of disposable consumer goods” (13). Disdéri himself published an article that offered “indispensable advice” to exhibitors in the 1855 Exposition, emphasizing the speed, exactitude and economy of photography and suggesting that manufacturers might want to reproduce prize-winning models to increase orders. McCauley attributes the boom of specialists in industrial and technological photography to the influence of the 1855 exhibit, both in the construction of the Exposition and the items contained within (14). In the decades following the 1850s, world’s fairs became of one of most popular subjects for stereo photography, with the London Stereoscopic Co. reporting over 300,000 stereo cards sold of the International Exhibition in 1862 alone.

Disdéri’s stereo daguerreotype View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle (1855) epitomizes the popularity of world’s fair photography in the mid to late 19th century, emphasizing both the amount of products contained in the exhibition as well as the architectural wonder of the Palais de l’Industrie itself. Disdéri, a daguerreotypist, was best known as the inventor of the carte de visite, a commercially successful method of printing “greeting card” photos. Like the carte de visite, stereography signaled the start of a new era of photographic mass production (15). During the height of his success, Disderi ran “portrait factories” in London, Paris and Madrid that relied upon the latest advancements in mass manufacturing techniques (16). The stereographs produced were sold on the streets of Paris and widely distributed among the public, helping to forge the visual representation of France by highlighting scenes considered characteristic of the modern world. Stereo cards, “cheap and easily obtained on the streets of Paris… provided visitors with mementoes of their trip. But, like picture postcards, they also served as guides to what was important. By singling out certain monuments and scenes, they helped to shape the popular vision of the new capital of France” (17). Stereo cards were direct, straightforward images that reflected a viewer’s expectations of a particular place, often views, which offered a distinct foreground, middleground and background to enhance the three-dimensional effect (18). View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle is a characteristic example of this genre. Photographed from a high vantage point to give the observer an overview of the scene, the stereograph depicts the wide exhibition hall at center of the Palais de l’Industrie and the various displays of products it contained (19). To one critic, this centerpiece of the Exposition was a “sketch of the temple of the future” (20). Writer Victor Fournel described the scene as “a muddle of flagpoles, of streamers, of banners, of spires, of scaffolding, of columns, of steam vents, of wooden and iron frameworks; a jumble of domes, of minarets, of pediments, of statues, of fountains, of towers, of bandstands, of greenhouses, of chalets, of pavilions, of pagodas; a chaos of monuments and hybrid buildings, of every era and country, of every shape and for every purpose, of every style and colour, encroaching upon the bank of the Seine” (21). Although crowded with objects and spectators at ground level, the detail of the image does not detract from the grandeur of the scene. Rather, it is the arched ceiling, multiple rows of galleries, and ornate roofs of the row of symmetrical pavilions that are emphasized, creating an inviting space for the viewer’s eye to explore.

Two related images of the era depict the the Palais de l’Industrie in a manner that emphasizes its industrial rather than its illusive qualities. Whereas Disdéri’s View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle (1855) hinges upon the wonder of the three-dimensional effect created when the card was inserted into a stereoscope, the earlier photographs instead emphasize the reality of the industrial world. Bertsch’s Interior View of the Palais de l’Industrie under Construction for the 1855 Exposition Universelle (1854) [Figure 2] provides a corresponding view of the center aisle of the Palais de l’Industrie, captured during the 1854 construction of the exhibition hall. Though the symmetrical composition of the image and the enormous interior space might induce awe in a viewer, the ladders and scaffolding visible in the unfinished foreground situate the image firmly in a physical space. Similarly, Berthelin’s Palace of Industry, cross section (Palais de l’Industrie, coupe transversale) (1854) [Figure 3] deconstructs the magical qualities of Disdéri’s daguerreotype through its presentation of architectural plan of the exposition hall. Though the size and symmetry of the drawing are wondrous, the image is stripped of any three-dimensional qualities. Therefore, it may be concluded, the magic of Disdéri’s image does not spring only from its depiction of technological innovation: though the architectural features of the Palais it captures may be impressive, its ability to provide a sense of illusion comes from stereoscopy. As a prime example of a popular stereograph, the View of the Center Aisle of the Palace of Industry, Exposition Universelle demonstrates the impact of technological advancements in photography on the enhancement of everyday images, an effect reflective of the inventive qualities of industrialization.

Figure 2. Auguste-Adolphe, “Interior View of the Palais de l’Industrie Under Construction for the 1855 Exposition Universelle,” 1855. Salt print from paper negative. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
Figure 3. Max Berthelin, “Palace of Industry, cross section,” 1854. Pen and black ink, watercolor. Musée d’Orsay.

Shelley remarks that “it must be said that photography is a child of the Industrial Age, and only through its industrialization could it truly come into its own” (22). As a symbol of the modern, photography came to represent the social effects of industrialization as well as the cultural impact of mass production. Industrial Age France, with its fixation on the marvels of technology as well as the qualities of illusion found in modern invention, rightfully embraced stereography and the Exposition Universelle as heralds of a more industrially advanced and globally aware future. The mass popularity of stereo cards in particular, with their dual qualities of illusion and technological wonder, best encapsulate the awe of innovation as a guiding force in Second Empire France and in the lives of its citizens for years to come.


(1) Elizabeth M. L. Gralton, “Lust of the Eyes: The Anti-Modern Critique of Visual Culture at the Paris Expositions universelles, 1855-1900,” French History and Civilization 5 (2014): 75-76.

(2) Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 279.

(3) Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848-1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 234.

(4) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 38.

(5) Elizabeth M. L. Gralton, “Lust of the Eyes: The Anti-Modern Critique of Visual Culture at the Paris Expositions universelles, 1855-1900,” French History and Civilization 5 (2014): 81.

(6) Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 282.

(7) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 46.

(8) Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 278-279.

(9) Robert Hirsch, Seizing the Light: A History of Photography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 92.

(10) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 48.

(11) Robert Hirsch, Seizing the Light: A History of Photography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 91.

(12) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 130.

(13) Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 279.

(14) Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848-1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 197.

(15) Freddy Langer, Icons of Photography: The 19th Century (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2002), 88.

(16) Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 279.

(17) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 105.

(18) Robert Hirsch, Seizing the Light: A History of Photography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 93.

(19) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 105-106.

(20) Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848-1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 229.

(21) Elizabeth M. L. Gralton, “Lust of the Eyes: The Anti-Modern Critique of Visual Culture at the Paris Expositions universelles, 1855-1900,” French History and Civilization 5 (2014): 71.

(22) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 51.

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