Cliché-Verre and Friendship in 19th-Century France
In the 1850s, as photography took its first steps toward commercial reproducibility, a more intimate use for light-sensitive plates briefly bloomed. It had a few names: heliographic drawing, photographic autography, or, as it is best known today, cliché-verre. Miya Tokumitsu takes us to the towns and forests of France where a group of friends began making marks on photographic plates, and finds their camaraderie cohere in lyrical arrangements of topography and light.
November 21, 2023
In May of 1853, the celebrated painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot drew his first photographic negative on a glass plate. He was in the northern French town of Arras, visiting his dear friend, Constant Dutilleux, also a painter. It was a festive time: Corot was close with his friend’s family, and the occasion for the visit was the wedding of Dutilleux’s daughter, Élisa, to the artist and publisher Alfred Robaut.1 Encouraged by friends, Corot scratched a stylus around the collodion-coated plate, removing bits of the emulsion in scribbles and wisps. This cliché-verre (glass plate) was then used as a matrix to create the resulting print, The Woodcutter of Rembrandt (Le Bûcheron de Rembrandt). Thus began a spirited but brief efflorescence of cliché-verre making in France. Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, and numerous others tried their hands at the newfangled technique, though none besides Corot found it to be a sustaining medium for their work. This story of cliché-verre, from its delightful beginning to its general quiescence a few years later, reveals what a generative — and delicate — creative force friendship can be.
Cliché-verre is a graphic art technique that combines aspects of photography and printmaking. Until the twentieth century, it had an unsettled nomenclature that awkwardly attempted to bridge these mediums and included various knotty terms like “heliographic drawing” (dessin héliographique) and “photographic autography” (autographie photographique).2 In the most common, “drawn” method of cliché-verre that Corot employed for The Woodcutter of Rembrandt, a transparent glass plate is covered with an opaque coating, such as collodion. As with copperplate etching, an artist draws through this coating with a stylus, scratching or flecking it off the surface. Indeed, Corot’s invocation of Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the great masters of etching, in the title of his first cliché-verre, perhaps staked a hopeful claim for the new technique. Once the composition is complete, the plate is a photographic negative; light shines through only the transparent areas of the plate onto light-sensitive paper, creating a photographic image.3 No camera is required.
Alternatively, an artist could paint a composition onto the glass plate. In contrast to the subtractive method described above, this additive method requires the artist to think in reverse, tonally. The most opaque areas of brushed-on paint will print faint or white as they impede the light’s penetration, whereas areas only thinly covered or left untouched will allow more light through and therefore print darkest.4 In Two Boatmen in a Marsh near a Cluster of Trees, Dutilleux created soft tonal variations by brushing and daubing his plate with pigment.
Dutilleux was the nucleus of a lively artistic community in Arras. He owned and ran a lithography printing operation, taught art classes, and painted landscapes for pleasure and portraits on commission.5 And he oversaw a busy atelier that served as a gathering point for artists at various stages of training and professional ambition, including Adalbert Cuvelier, an amateur landscape photographer; Jean-Gabriel-Léandre Grandguillaume, a local drawing professor; and Charles Desavary, a lithographer and photographer who married another of Dutilleux’s daughters and eventually became his business partner. With a rotating cast of others in tow, this merry band took excursions together, sketching, painting, and photographing the countryside, all the time exchanging ideas and exploring new paths forward for their art.6
During one such exchange, Cuvelier and Grandguillaume devised a process for cliché-verre printing, though the precise details of their discovery are unknown.7 It was they who initially urged Corot to create The Woodcutter of Rembrandt, and who subsequently printed his plate.8 Another of the Arras friends took care to document Corot’s early cliché-verre trials for posterity. Impressions of the first three cliché-verre prints by Corot, which were once in Dutilleux’s possession, are annotated with captions such as “C. Corot, 1st attempt at drawing on glass for photography, May 1853”.9 Corot proceeded to produce some fifty clichés-verre from 1853 until 1860, when he paused temporarily. That was the year Dutilleux moved to Paris, thereby decreasing Corot’s regular trips to Arras.10 After 1860, Corot had two periods of cliché-verre activity: one in 1871 and another in 1874.11
He never made these prints alone. Corot did not engage with the technical intricacies of plate preparation or printing himself, and his cliché-verre production was active only when he was able to collaborate with Grandguillaume and Cuvelier, and later on, Desavary, who eventually took over printing his plates.12 In between their meetings, Corot continued to discuss “les verres” with Dutilleux in letters — a testament to his personal investment in the medium, as he seldom corresponded about his paintings.13 These relationships facilitated Corot’s expression in the new technique. But collaborative artistic processes also come with inherent limitations due to factors both mundane, such as schedule alignment, and emotional, like the shifting tides of personal intimacy.
Navigating these sensitive conditions across several intertwined social groups requires a combination of social acuity and energy that Corot possessed in abundance. His plans for the year 1857, probably jotted down in one excited sitting, sound exhausting: no fewer than ten stints as a houseguest in as many towns between May and October. Each visit would be preceded by an exuberant letter announcing his imminent arrival.14 Fifteen years later, Corot continued to be a man in transit. Between July and August 1873, he zipped from Douai (where he visited the Robauts) to Arras (to see Desavary) to Dunkirk (with the artist Charles-François Daubigny) to Ville d’Avray (for his sister’s birthday) to Marcoussis (where he had promised to meet the painter Ernest-Joachim Dumax and others).15 One of the Marcoussis group, E. Forest, captured an understandably tuckered-out Corot in a pair of sketches.16
Meanwhile, the practice of cliché-verre spread from Arras to Barbizon, a town south of Paris in Fontainebleau forest. There, another group of artists had coalesced; they were loosely united in their interest in representing nature and preindustrial life, and often turned to their physical environment for inspiration. As in Arras, this gathering included painters, printmakers, and photographers. Rousseau and Millet are perhaps the best-known figures of this so-called Barbizon School today. Beginning around 1851, members of the Arras group, including Dutilleux and his students, had begun visiting Barbizon regularly. Among them was Adalbert Cuvelier’s son, Eugène, also an amateur photographer.17
In 1859, Eugène Cuvelier married Marie-Louise Ganne, daughter of the innkeeper at the Auberge Ganne in Barbizon, where numerous artists socialized and lodged. The festivities were an enchanting manifestation of the Barbizon group’s rustic ideals and artistic camaraderie. Millet and Rousseau were present as best men to the groom, and Corot led guests in a line dance through an obstacle course of empty bottles.18 Although the Cuveliers are background figures in the history of art, their marriage was made possible by the creative fellowship fostered by the social worlds of Arras and Barbizon.
Eugène Cuvelier remained in Barbizon, introducing the artists there to his father’s cliché-verre technique.19 Rousseau and Millet both gave it a go, as did several other artists settled in Barbizon, or just passing through.20 These Barbizon plates date between 1859 and 1862, a span of just a few years. Daubigny, another dear friend to Corot and regular visitor to Barbizon, took to cliché-verre enthusiastically, producing seventeen of them in 1862. However, his cliché-verre production stopped abruptly this same year.
The primary subject matter of these clichés-verre — richly foliated forests, lyrical arrangements of topography and light — reflect the longstanding interests of these artists. Corot populated many of his cliché-verre compositions with evocative figures that appear regularly in his painted landscapes: shepherds, strolling daydreamers, sweet families. For his part, Daubigny was able to translate the glowing atmospheres of his small etched landscapes into cliché-verre. However, the new cliché-verre medium also offered expanded possibilities for approaching subjects that these artists had explored in other media.
For Corot, cliché-verre provided another method for forming the autographic strokes he cherished in drawing.21 In Death and the Young Girl (La Jeune fille et la mort), Corot used a blunt-tipped tool to remove wide paths of emulsion from the glass plate, creating thick contours and hatch marks in the final print. The heaviness of these strokes makes an assertive reference to the artist’s hand — a literal personal touch that imbues these works with an intimacy that parallels that of Corot and his printers. The wild arboreal growth in another of Corot’s clichés-verre, The Trees in the Mountain (Les Arbres dans la montagne), is a riot of zig-zags. Daubigny’s Cows at a Watering Place (Vaches à l'abreuvoir) dares to approach the abstract; its somber mood comes into focus almost before the cows do.
Like its cousin, photography, cliché-verre did not come preloaded with the historical legacies of painting, sculpture, or architecture, with their royal academies and pantheons of masters. Nor did cliché-verre and early photography have preexisting audiences of connoisseurial obsessives, as did etching. The same false choice hung over both photography and cliché-verre: were they best suited for industrial use or could they be viable as mediums of fine art? Although photography, as the superior tool for representation, would take hold within and beyond the world of fine art, cliché-verre, it seems, caught on only in highly specific contexts. Arras had a fortuitous confluence of amateur photographers and professional printers that fostered the cross-media experimentation of Adalbert Cuvelier and Grandguillaume. Fontainebleau forest, and its denizens’ enthusiasm for plein-air art-making, proved a welcoming venue for photographers who turned their lenses on the same vistas observed by painters and sketchers. Working in proximity to artists such as Millet and Rousseau, photographers like Gustave Le Gray, Constant Alexandre Famin, and Eugène Cuvelier created painterly landscape compositions and captured, in their own medium, the forest’s changing light.22 Coming from Arras, where he had seen painters persuaded to try cliché-verre, Eugène Cuvelier succeeded in suggesting that the painters in Barbizon do the same.
One appealing aspect of cliché-verre for novices was its low barrier to entry: there was no “right” way to create one, and this open-endedness created room for experimentation. For instance, clichés-verre were typically printed with the emulsion side of the glass facing down, touching the light-sensitive paper. This would lead to a sharp image — as light would not refract through the glass between the image matrix and the paper. Facing the emulsion side down yielded an image printed in reverse to that of the matrix, like one would get with traditional printmaking techniques. But perhaps, on occasion, a softer contour might be desired. Clichés-verre could also be printed emulsion side up. Doing so would leave the image unreversed and produce a soft focus and halo effect around the image contours, as light would refract through the glass plate before striking the paper underneath.23
Daubigny printed his composition Deer (Les Cerfs) both ways. The impression with the lighter, neater lines was made with the emulsion side of the glass plate face down on the paper. The impression with the softer contours was printed with the emulsion side up. By simply flipping the plate, Daubigny was able to create two distinct iterations of his composition, one faithfully documenting his hand-drawn strokes and the other distorting them slightly for moody effect.
Not all of these artists’ experiments with cliché-verre were aimed at discovering new, technique-specific pictorial effects in the manner of Daubigny and his two printings of Deer. Millet applied cliché-verre in a more industrial manner, using it to make reproductions of two painted works, including The Maternal Precaution (La Précaution maternelle). In this instance, Millet drew upon cliché-verre’s potential as a reproductive technology to create a drawn version, in multiple, of his charming painted composition. Corot also reproduced two of his painted compositions in early cliché-verre trials, but ceased using the technique for this purpose, focusing instead on its possibilities for his own creative expression.24 None of these painters, it seems, found cliché-verre to be a satisfactory method for disseminating images of their own paintings. Millet, who was a skilled etcher, seemed to have preferred the inky materiality and tonal richness of copperplate printmaking for creating small-scale works on paper. Finding cliché-verre a bit wan in comparison, and not a convincing medium for reproducing paintings, he gave it up.
In the end, neither the aesthetic effects achievable in cliché-verre nor the technique’s capacity for serving as a means to reproduce images found purchase among the Barbizon group or beyond it. Despite their willingness to experiment with cliché-verre, most of the Barbizon artists set it aside after a few trials. Other than Corot and Daubigny, none of the artists mentioned here made more than a few, and Corot was the only one who continued making clichés-verre after 1862. Many of these works exist in only a handful of impressions. It seems these artists found the technique a passing novelty rather than a generative means for advancing their artistic aims or, for that matter, their success in the art market.
Also at issue was the basic reality that friendship circles are highly mutable social contexts. The magic of a particular month or season or few years is fleeting, as individuals journey along their own inevitably divergent life trajectories. Confluences of specific personalities in one location, all at moments in their lives when they are undistracted and receptive to collaborative experimentation, are rarely permanent or stable. By the mid-1860s, the shape of the Barbizon group and its network of affiliates was shifting. Rousseau and Dutilleux died in 1865. Eugène Cuvelier, who introduced cliché-verre to the Barbizon group and printed their plates, seems to have drifted from pursuing an artistic career, though he remained a skilled amateur photographer.25 Corot was a regular visitor, but not a permanent fixture in Barbizon; in any case, he did not prepare or print plates, and so could not have served as a technical facilitator of others’ clichés-verre.
The technology and materials for making clichés-verre remained known and available, but the highly specific convivial context of Barbizon between 1859 and 1862 came to an end. As this group metamorphosed, the collaborations that nurtured cliché-verre disappeared and were not replaced, even as the individuals involved remained fond of one another.
The failure of cliché-verre to take hold as a mainstream artistic medium, in contrast to lithography and photography, is a story that extends beyond the Barbizon School’s brief romance with the technique. Indeed, near-contemporaneous, niche enthusiasms for cliché-verre bubbled up and dissipated in England and the United States (and later, in the studios of Paul Klee, Man Ray, and several other artists).26 There was, for instance, the not-insignificant matter of cliché-verre lacking a dedicated public audience. The small prints made by the Arras-Barbizon artists may have served as mementos or friendship tokens meant to be kept and exchanged within their social milieu.27 These clichés-verre were therefore rather intimate objects in their initial releases, made for a familiar audience. Lithography and photography, by contrast, were introduced to the public as industrial techniques for producing mass media, and both were more cost-effective than cliché-verre for that purpose.28 Eventually, both would be accepted as mediums for fine art as well.
Meanwhile copperplate etching, a printmaking technique originating in the sixteenth century, was experiencing a revival across Europe as an artisanal medium marketed to connoisseurs in limited editions. The clichés-verre created in Arras and Barbizon never ultimately gained a toehold among the public, critics, or collectors — the main constituencies who determined success in the nineteenth-century art market as well as the narrative of the century’s art history.29
After interest in cliché-verre subsided in Barbizon, many of these worked-up plates remained in the hands of Alfred Robaut and Eugène Cuvelier — the grooms of both weddings mentioned above. Desavary, another of Dutilleux’s sons-in-law, held onto a separate batch. These men, intimately connected to the artists of Arras and Barbizon, were the first generation of the plates’ caretakers. From these primary collections, the Barbizon plates flowed to successive owners. In 1921, Maurice Le Garrec, a Paris-based art dealer who had acquired many of the Desavary plates, had forty reprinted and published in a portfolio, Forty Glass Plates (Quarante clichés-glace).30 Le Garrec released Quarante clichés-glace in an edition of a hundred and fifty plus five expanded editions that had two variant impressions from each plate. The portfolio includes several clichés-verre by Corot and Daubigny, as well as two each by Rousseau and Millet. It also includes Eugène Delacroix’s sole cliché-verre, which depicts a snarling tiger rendered in loose, thin lines.
It was through Quarante clichés-glace that the mainstream art market became acquainted with these artists’ clichés-verre, decades after most of their creators had died.31 The portfolio did not inspire fresh interest in actually practicing the technique, however. Perhaps etymological developments played a discouraging role: just as “cliché-verre” was starting to stabilize as a term for the technique in the early twentieth century, “cliché” on its own had begun to acquire a connotation of hackneyed repetition, akin to another printing matrix affiliated with industrial production, the stereotype.32
After his colleagues left cliché-verre behind in 1862, Corot undertook two later periods of activity with the technique in 1871 and 1874 — years in which it was possible to collaborate with his favored printers. Exactly why Corot bucked the trend is open to speculation. A partial explanation may lie in the sociality of Corot’s cliché-verre practice. Cliché-verre was a process and product of friendship for this artist, a technique facilitated by correspondence and visits, suggestion and feedback, personal contribution and reliance on the expertise of others. Among his other achievements, Corot was a uniquely good friend. He was by all accounts a jocular presence perpetually surrounded by gaggles of companions and visitors, and his generosity matched his capacity for social engagements. When another of his friends, the artist Honoré Daumier, found himself impoverished and suffering from poor eyesight and illness, Corot made him a cash gift, allowing Daumier to purchase the small house he had been renting for nine years.33 Corot also financially supported Millet’s widow after her husband’s death. His skill at maintaining intimacy and understanding with a variety of collaborators bore fruit in numerous ways, one of which was an outstanding production of clichés-verre. Corot made his last group of clichés-verre in 1874, just months before his death, while visiting Desavary.
Miya Tokumitsu is the Donald T. Fallati and Ruth E. Pachman Curator of the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University. She completed her PhD in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. Her writing encompasses art historical scholarship and cultural criticism.