THE MET GETS ‘SALON’
In 2003, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855,” the first image visitors saw — blown up to 10 feet at the entrance — was of a perfectly composed interior of a mid-19th-century parlor. The image was also used on a poster for the exhibition. But at the time the picture, “Baron Gros’s Salon,” did not belong to the Met. It was on loan from two Paris collectors, Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes.
For years curators at the Met wanted the image, the work of Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros, a French diplomat who first learned photography while stationed in Bogotá, Colombia, in the early 1840s and later perfected it in France. Gros became what Malcolm Daniel, the curator in charge of photography at the Met, called “the supreme master of the daguerreotype in the country of its invention.”
21And this particular image — from 1850-57 — is thought to be the parlor of his home on the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy in Paris. The rich setting, with multiple patterns and textures of fabrics and objects, has at its center an easel full of photographs. The composition is made particularly dramatic by light streaming in from a sliver of a window. “It’s a self-portrait of his taste, talent and social status,” Mr. Daniel said, “an interior photograph of photographs.”
By its very nature a daguerreotype — in which an image is created on a polished silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine and developed with mercury fumes — is unique. There is no negative, nor are there prints. In 2008 “Baron Gros’s Salon” appeared at a Sotheby’s auction, at which Serge Plantureux, a Paris dealer, snapped it up for $271,684. A year later, in November, he turned around and put it up for sale at a small French auction house. But the $350,000 to $500,000 estimate was too high, and it failed to sell.
That was good news for the Met, which had been quietly tracking the image since the exhibition. “We had the right of first refusal for it, in the event that it wasn’t sold at auction,” Mr. Daniel said. The museum was able to buy it from Mr. Plantureux. “It’s now our most important daguerreotype,” Mr. Daniel said, adding that he plans to put it on view later this year.
The Salon of Baron Gros, 1850–57
Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros (1793–1870)
Full plate daguerreotype (22 x 17.1 cm)
A French diplomat and gentleman amateur photographer, Baron Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros first learned of photography while stationed in Bogotà, Colombia, in the early 1840s. In the years that followed, he made daguerreotypes in South America, Greece, Egypt, London, and Paris that were greatly admired by his fellow photographers and continue to entrance viewers today with their startling detail and iridescent surface. This work, one of fewer than twenty plates now known by Gros, is thought to show the salon of his Paris home.
Gros’ exceptional mastery of the technical aspects of the young medium was paired with a refined visual sensibility, seen here in the richness of the setting, with its multiple patterns and textures in fabric and decorative objets d’art, and most of all in the subtle and seductive play of light. Every detail is perfectly calibrated—the ewer carefully silhouetted in the window, the stylish high-back chair positioned invitingly in the glancing sunlight, the daguerreotypes on the easel clearly visible despite their mirrorlike surfaces, and the closed curtains that provide a theatrical backdrop. It is an interior and a still life, but most of all it is a self-portrait, a revealing picture of Baron Gros’ social standing, aesthetic discernment, travels, and talent. (Met Museum notice)