The “Madame B Album” (ca. 1870s)

The “Madame B Album” was not made for public viewing, though the artist spared no care on its design. The book is a leatherbound volume of some hundred photocollages. Victorians enjoyed their photos in myriad ways — trading, posing, and arranging, inscribing winking captions, customizing rings and lockets. Photocollage is part of this domestic feminine milieu, and yet separate from it; collagists treated the photo irreligiously, as raw material for artmaking, something to be used, and used up. There is no substantive distinction between nineteenth-century photocollage and collage as it is understood today.

Madame B’s primary practice was to paint elaborate, fantastical watercolor settings for photographic portraits of friends, family, and pets. She pastes photos in all sorts of whimsical places: on the tail feathers of a turkey, within the divots of a blue infinity chain, nestled in bouquets and lily pads. Men in suits form the eyespots of a butterfly’s wings, and women with muffs balance in a snow-speckled tree. Photos dangle from a bird’s beak and a horse’s yoke; seven are ensnared in a spider’s web.

Madame B’s meticulousness is almost maniacal, her touch as fine as one might expect from a miniaturist. On one exceedingly delicate collage, thousands of minute pale lines suggest crazing, the hairline webbing that appears when ceramic and glaze imperfectly bond. On another, jagged blush-colored striations indicate marble. Photos are encircled by ribbons and sticks, pine boughs and wrought iron, mica terrazzo, cattails. A picture of a grand building is draped by a curtain of chainmail, each link distinct.

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As is true of so much art and craft produced by Victorian women, the album is unsigned; the Art Institute of Chicago acquired it without any idea of the maker. They assigned it its enigmatic title because the first page features an elaborate doorway monogrammed “B”.

Close inspection and curatorial sleuthing revealed that the artist knew French, and had also spent a great deal of time in Sweden and later, Italy. She was a skilled watercolorist and draftswoman, suggesting an aristocratic education. The various circles of acquaintance represented in the book’s cartes de visite were carefully layered: who might have possessed a photo of Sweden’s king, Italy’s queen, a Russian family surnamed Polovstov, a diplomat from Württemberg?

By educated guess, the name eventually attached to the “Madame B Album” was Marie-Blanche Hennelle Fournier, known as “Blanche” and married to a career diplomat, Hughes-Marie Henri Fournier. Blanche had a daughter, Pauline. She loved her husband, or at least suggested as much through the symbology of the flowers that adorn his photo. She lost interest in her album, and left many collages unfinished. Surely, she never imagined it acquired by a museum, and paged by strangers all over the world.

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