Metropolitan Museum of Art

Félix Nadar with his wife, Ernestine, in a balloon, circa 1865

At 10:46 PM on December 1, 1865, the American Baltimore Gun Club launched the first successful moonshot from an underground site in Tampa, Florida. The spacecraft, a twelve-foot aluminum capsule weighing 19,250 pounds, achieved lunar orbit seventy-two hours later. Among the crew of three was a remarkable Frenchman named Michel Ardan.

A contemporary description has survived of this memorable character. Ardan was over six feet tall, with a “leonine mane” of unlikely red hair, immensely long legs, a “combative” manner, and much “gesticulating” talk. He bubbled with wild ideas and original observations, restless energy, and ceaseless boyish enthusiasms: “This astonishing man…had not yet passed the age of superlatives…he saw everything larger than life except difficulties…he was a dare-devil…an Icarus with a pair of spare wings.” He also had a genius for self-publicity, and by the time of the launch over half a million copies of Ardan’s photograph, “printed in all formats from life-size to the tiny dimensions of a postage stamp,” had been circulated in newspapers and magazines across the whole American continent.

Of course all this is fiction. It comes from Jules Verne’s early science adventure novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865). But the “astonishing” Ardan was based closely on fact. He is an accurate portrait, both physically and psychologically, and one is tempted to say sociologically, of a real historical figure: Félix Nadar (1820–1910). Nadar never quite went to the moon like Ardan, but he flew very high indeed.

Lightly disguised under the anagram, the original long-legged, red-haired, rumbustious Nadar was one of the phenomena of the French Second Empire. The poet Charles Baudelaire described him as “the most astonishing expression of vitality” and speculated that he must have a double set of “vital organs.” Victor Hugo sent him letters from abroad addressed simply “Nadar, Paris.” In 1867 Alfred Delvau gave him an entire chapter in his celebrity survey, Les Lions du Jour, asking, “Who doesn’t know Nadar, in Paris, in France, in Europe?” In 1994–1995 the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dedicated an exhibition and a magnificent catalog to his life and work.

Even so, Nadar remains curiously elusive, in his alarming multiplicity of talents. He was a journalist, a caricature artist, and a photographer, but also a reckless balloonist, a risky business entrepreneur, a romantic republican, an unreliable memoir-writer, and a relentless self-publicist. He lived to be nearly ninety, always up to date and always insisting that the three essential expressions of modernism were “photography, electricity, and aeronautics.” A few months before his death he wrote to Louis Blériot congratulating him on being the first to fly not around the moon but across the English Channel.

Both Ardan and Nadar had the same motto: Quand même! This is an untranslatable Gallic shrug of cheerful defiance in the face of an intractable universe. It can be approximately rendered as “All the same!” if accompanied by wittily raised eyebrows. Nadar’s entire larger-than-life career provokes astonishment, now joyfully celebrated in The Great Nadar, Adam Begley’s richly entertaining and thoughtful biography.

In fact the real Nadar was himself an invention. He was born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in Paris in 1820. The eldest son of a bankrupt printer from Lyons who died in financial chaos, Tournachon was left with a doting mother and a needy younger brother, Adrien. He was expelled from the Collège Bourbon (characteristically for experimenting with nonsafety matches), abandoned medical school, and then flung himself into the Left Bank world of Parisian literary bohemia that was soon to be celebrated in the tender romantic tales of Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1849), by his friend Henri Murger, and eventually in Puccini’s gloriously sentimental opera La Bohème (1895).

With his red hair and anarchic manner he already encouraged tall tales about himself, as he would do for the rest of his life. Begley recounts a story told by his fellow photographer Étienne Carjat, of young Tournachon living in his version of artistic penury:

Félix hadn’t stirred from his bed for two months, having no clothes to go out in. His mistress had pantaloons and yellow boots she wore to the Opéra Ball. The two of them had a passion for oysters, and the discarded shells carpeted the floor of the room.

For the next twenty years Tournachon lived hand-to-mouth as a small-time journalist, political radical, cartoonist, and would-be novelist. His rambling fiction La Robe de Déjanire (1843), about penniless artists living in a Parisian garret, draws on the same poignant material as Murger but with a boisterous republican slant. His exceptional chutzpah is already suggested by his launching a luxury magazine, Le Livre d’or, with a host of big-name contributors—Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval—in 1839, when he was only nineteen. It folded after three issues.


The following year (although still penniless) he hosted a hugely successful fête champêtre (fancy garden party) off the rue Montmartre, issuing a crazed invitation and promising fireworks, tableaux vivants, anatomy lessons, wild singing, and “decent women,” most of which turned out to be purely imaginary. But significantly he illustrated the invitation with two clever cartoon figures, a Pierrot and a long-legged poet. He signed it with one of his earliest self-inventions: the strictly fabulous host “M. le vicomte de la Tour Nadard” (the “d” was dropped later).

In the 1840s, Nadar’s written journalism (genial but vaguely libelous) began to be accompanied by small, startling illustrations. He submitted cartoons and caricatures of Parisian celebrities, mostly writers or politicians. The poet Théodore de Banville described this early work as “a heap of astonishing bizarre masterpieces—absurd, crazy, naïve, insolent, charming—that had nothing to do with the art of Raphael and resembled the drawings of a wickedly smart child.”

They fed a growing fashion for graphic humor in large-circulation magazines and papers like La Caricature and Charivari, edited by the powerful Charles Philipon—“Baron Burlesque”—who first caricatured the doomed French king Louis-Philippe as a large, overripe pear. It is an irreverent tradition that still flourishes in France to this day, recklessly and sometimes heroically pursued, as in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

It was now that the signature “Nadar,” drawn with a long-legged racing letter N, began to proliferate across the press, first in the Journal du dimanche in 1847, then in La Revue Comique, and finally in Philipon’s immensely popular and scurrilous Le Journal pour rire (Journal for a Laugh) in 1849.

There had been interruptions. During the revolutionary year 1848 Nadar marched quixotically with his younger brother Adrien in a volunteer army to liberate Poland. They only got as far as Germany, where they were briefly interned. Nadar returned to write a political pantomime, Pierrot Ministre, against Louis-Philippe’s pear-shaped government. His bohemian days ended with a spell in debtor’s prison, lightheartedly described in “Clichy in 1850” and swiftly followed by the start of regular commissions from Philipon, a professional engagement that would continue for over a decade.

In 1851, his first full year of work for Philipon, Nadar produced over five hundred individual caricatures and a fortnightly lead cartoon filling the whole of the front page. Now he was “always busy, always late, always in demand.” The distinguished illustrator Paul Gavarni observed with resignation, “All is lost! See how Nadar has learned to draw!”

Next Nadar came up with the idea for a series of enormous pictorial panthéons. The first was political, a cortege of sixty delegates of the Constituent Assembly. He had by now developed his trademark manner of showing them as bizarre homunculi with shrunken bodies but large, instantly recognizable heads. They were known as portraits-charge (“weighted” or “loaded” comic portraits). It is a style not dissimilar to that created by David Levine.

Then came the hugely ambitious Panthéon Nadar, to be financed by various loans. Originally it was to be four vast panoramic lithographs depicting “twelve hundred French luminaries”: the leading authors, musicians, actors, and artists of the day. But only one lithograph finally appeared, the literary Panthéon Nadar in 1854. It is a fantastic, snaking celebrity lineup, consisting of 250 jostling writers led by Victor Hugo. Yet only a mere 136 copies were sold. As Begley remarks, “the concept was brilliant, the execution a shambles.” But Nadar had

understood intuitively the emerging celebrity culture, the desire to be publicly known, to be visible and recognized now and in the future. Long familiar with that craving in himself, he could spot it with ease in his contemporaries.

The Panthéon Nadar was so expensive and time-consuming that it nearly bankrupted him. But this single lithograph made his name. It also led to his discovery of a new, fashionable, and much swifter image-making process: photography, or “drawing with sunlight.” After years of experimentation in the 1840s, it had been released from the technical straitjacket of the slow daguerreotype, which took several minutes to reproduce a fragile image on glass. The rapid wet-plate process, using a coating of the chemical collodion, could record a portrait in a matter of seconds and be printed permanently on silver-salts paper.

In 1854 Nadar set up his brother, Adrien, in a shared photographic studio at 11 boulevard des Capucines. Their first success was a series of bold white “Pierrot” studies, posed by the famous mime Charles Deburau and shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. Adrien always claimed these as his alone, and after a brief and troubled period of collaboration, Nadar moved into his own studio at 113 rue Saint-Lazare and began dreaming of a new photographic Panthéon Nadar. He had impulsively married, and one of his very first portraits was of his eighteen-year-old bride, Ernestine. It is remarkable for its simplicity and informality, and for her unexpectedly quizzical, slightly sideways expression taking stock of her new husband.


Other early photos turned to literary and journalistic friends: Nerval, Gautier, Dumas, Charles Asselineau, and his patron Philipon (waving a big cigar). A striking series of portraits of Baudelaire, taken before and after the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal and its trial for obscenity, form a revealing kind of visual biography, the dreaming poet gradually becoming the persecuted author at bay. An astonishing host of sitters now joined Nadar’s Pantheon: Gustave Doré, Hector Berlioz, Jacques Offenbach, Gioacchino Rossini, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, Jean-François Millet, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt…. Over the next twenty years, it would become the greatest gallery of French celebrity photographs of the nineteenth century.

Much of Begley’s book is given to shrewd and admiring description and analysis of these superb photo portraits, which have sometimes been compared to Rembrandts. He refers simply to their “austere magnificence.” He explores the emergence of the idea of “celebrity” itself, and contrasts Nadar’s studied self-portraits with the frantic modern “selfie.” Begley has a marvelous eye for detail. He picks out Nerval’s anxious cigar-stained finger, Hugo’s predatory fingernail, and the young Sarah Bernhardt’s tiny suggestive ear:

The air of mystery is especially strong when she’s wearing the black velvet…. Her sole ornament, a cameo earring, less a decoration than an echo in miniature, draws attention to her elfin ear, deliberately exposed and adding to the impression of nakedness.

Nadar produced plain, large-format portraits with no props, for which he charged a princely 100 francs. He concentrated all his skills on posing his subject and carefully lighting the face, to achieve what he called “la ressemblance intime.” By contrast Nadar’s great rival on the boulevards, the showman André Disdéri, who had photographed the new emperor Napoleon III, made his fortune by mass-producing small cartes de visite, for which he charged a mere 20 francs per dozen.

J. Paul Getty Museum

Sarah Bernhardt, circa 1864; photograph by Félix Nadar

Adrien also attempted to rival his brother, and signed his pictures “Nadar jeune.” In 1857 Nadar successfully concluded a surprisingly bitter court case against Adrien to retain the exclusive use of the now-famous logo. Yet three years later he paid off all Adrien’s debts. Begley is fascinated by the mystery of Nadar’s difficult relations with his younger brother, who ended up bankrupt and died in a lunatic asylum. Nadar’s fraternal feelings swung between blank fury—“Mon frère, valeur nulle”—and generous forgiveness (often encouraged by Ernestine). But the rivalry reveals a complex, fiercely ambitious side of Nadar’s character otherwise rarely on display.

It was only in the legal brief against Adrien that Nadar set down in writing his deepest views on the true art of photography. He said the photographic process itself could be learned by “the shallowest imbecile” in a few minutes. (Was he possibly referring to Adrien?) What could not be learned was the “feel for light…the artistic appreciation of the effects produced by various qualities of lighting alone or combined.” Even harder to learn was

the moral intelligence of your subject—the rapid tact that puts you in communion with your model…and allows you to give…a more familiar and favorable resemblance, the intimate resemblance—that’s the psychological aspect of photography, the word seems to me not too ambitious.

Nadar’s public reputation was increasingly eye-catching, and continued to provide colorful copy for journalists. He sported red republican jackets to match his red “sunset” hair and addressed everyone with the informal tu. His onetime bohemian friend the novelist Charles Bataille produced a typically animated profile:

Nadar is one of the most irresistible characters of the time. He is opinionated, passionate, spontaneous in his hates and in his loves; willful, changeable as a thermometer in his impressions. He dazzles you every minute with the glitter of his speech, which is full of turbulent and unexpected images, which gives you shivers like the knives of Chinese jugglers.

In 1860, as the photography boom continued, Nadar moved to a new, larger studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines, with luxurious ground-floor reception rooms, a two-story iron and glass rooftop extension (costing “a staggering 230,000 francs”), and a uniformed staff of fifty. Here the name “Nadar” became a true advertising logo, written in huge scarlet letters across the second-floor frontage in an early form of neon advertising designed by Antoine Lumière, father of the famous Lumière brothers.

Nadar now boasted various technical innovations. He took studio photographs by electric arc light and transported his equipment underground with a set of massive storage batteries, in order to photograph the Paris catacombs and the monumental sewers built beneath Haussmann’s new boulevards. He also took his camera up in a balloon and claimed the first successful aerial photograph taken above Paris, in 1858. He patented his techniques. All the while, as Begley remarks, he bemused and dazzled his friends as he “zigzagged between the heights and depths of his enthusiasms.”

Nadar’s genius—or hunger—for publicity now moved from photography to aeronautics. In 1863 he founded a society to further the cause of heavier-than-air machines, that is, true airplanes. Its secretary was the young Jules Verne. With a “superlative” touch worthy of the future Michel Ardan, Nadar commissioned an enormous, two-hundred-foot hydrogen balloon (“The Giant”) precisely to promote the very opposite cause, the superiority of airplanes over aerostats. He published a sensational pamphlet, The Right to Flight, and flew the balloon with nine passengers, including his wife, from Paris eastward into Germany. The appalling crash-landing that followed was reported in Scientific American and described in Nadar’s Memoires du Géant. The flight proved his point about airplanes, but badly injured everyone and for a moment looked as if it had actually killed Ernestine with a blow to the throat.

Nadar tells this melodramatic story in the Memoires in an unspooling conversational style, narrated largely in the present tense, and frequently interrupted with triple exclamation points. In some ways it is his most gripping piece of writing, already prophesying Ardan. Begley is especially intrigued by it, putting one version of the story in his first chapter (remarking, “catastrophe sells”), and then giving a more detailed and reflective version in chapter 8. The disaster was “noble if Nadar was wholly dedicated to making human flight practicable; if he was merely a daredevil adventurer, however, then the disaster was a shameful scandal.” Verne called him “courageous and intrepid”; Hugo said it augured the “magnificent transfiguration” of universal flight; Ernestine merely referred to his “damned balloon.”

Nonetheless, Nadar continued his publicity ascents, and seven years later, during the terrible Prussian siege of Paris, gallantly helped to organize the first airmail balloon service, which operated out of the starving and beleaguered capital. It was done with characteristic panache. The first of sixty-six successfully launched balloons carried a rousing propaganda letter from Nadar to The Times of London, but also dispensed a shower of Nadar business cards on the Prussian troops far below.

For the next thirty years Nadar continued to write idiosyncratic and increasingly fictionalized articles about his adventures. They were eventually collected in 1900, when he was eighty, in a forgotten book Begley wryly describes as “a canny, elliptical, often intemperate pseudo-memoir.” When I Was a Photographer has been freshly edited and translated by Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou, and offers many surprises. It consists of fourteen highly miscellaneous offerings: memoirs, vignettes, essays, short stories, and scandals, all loosely—sometimes very loosely—connected with photography.

Among them are suitably embellished accounts of Nadar’s first aerial photograph and his promotion of airmail (as microfilm) during the Paris siege. But there is also the wonderfully ingenious tale of a photographic hoax (“Gazebon Avenged,” possibly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe); the poignant story of the rivalry between a grieving wife and a heartbroken mistress over a unique deathbed photograph (“Female and Male Clients”); and the description of a single hideous mortuary snapshot that dramatically alters the outcome of a murder trial (“Homicidal Photography”). There is a long, racy history of early French photography (“The Primitives of Photography”), including Guys, Carjat, and the despised Disdéri (“enthusiasm for Disdéri became a delirium”). There is even a delightful tale of the aged Nadar attempting to photograph a youthful hive of bees in the south of France, where he had (in theory) retired (“The Bee Tamer”).

The long, scholarly introduction by Cadava reexamines all these jeux d’esprit with appropriate gravity, but is more concerned with the aesthetics of Nadar’s portraits: “Like the face and body, the photographic portrait is also a palimpsest to be read, a kind of archive; it always bears several memories at once.” This idea of the layered or multiple memorial is linked with Nadar’s concept of his Panthéons, and then with his account (in “Balzac and the Daguerreotype”) of Balzac’s bizarre belief that each photograph removed a vital layer of life from one’s body and released a “specter” or double into the world.

Cadava points out that the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin was fascinated by Nadar, his multiple images of Baudelaire, and the theories of intimacy, loss, and “ghostly layers” in photography. In his celebrated but unfinished Arcades Project of 1927, Benjamin also drew attention to the oddity that to give scale and authenticity to his photographs of the Paris catacombs and sewers, Nadar had to introduce ghostlike mannequins into them. Exposure under electric light simply took too long for living models (“Subterranean Paris”). So, paradoxically, to achieve “photographic realism,” Nadar had to introduce fake figures and “theatricality.”

This same contradiction between the authentic and the invented (or the factual and the fictional) runs intriguingly, and sometimes comically, throughout Adam Begley’s irresistible biography. Nadar’s tantalizing personality emerges as a scintillating but provocative combination of both. The theme is cunningly introduced on the very first page, where Begley presents a dashing photo of Nadar in a balloon basket high among the clouds, which actually turns out (in a second shot with a wider frame), to be a shamelessly posed studio shot—a brilliant Nadar “fake” or fiction.

Begley’s skill in this kind of biographic revelation is well practiced. His first biography was a long, shrewd, meticulously detailed life of John Updike (2014), analyzing all the novelist’s autobiographical tics and devices. He has been a fellow of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and has published a number of penetrating interviews in the famous Paris Review series. But with The Great Nadar, there is also a sense of his breaking free, relishing his Parisian researches, and reveling in a witty, nimble, good-natured narrative. He seems wonderfully at home in the Second Empire, and shifts effortlessly between historical backgrounds, technical explanation, and close-up scenes, brilliantly recreating Nadar at work in his “opulent” and “lavish” photographic studios.

Begley’s gentle fascination with Ernestine Tournachon, Nadar’s faithful, kindly, long-suffering wife (“Madame Bonne,” or “Mrs. Good”), is also exemplary. There are three sets of photos of her, all emotionally revealing. The first, quizzical set belongs to 1854, when they were just married; the second, from 1863, shows her posed alongside him in the basket of his balloon with a mixture of admiration and alarm. It is the third, taken in about 1890 after her stroke, that is the most powerful and has made a journey through time quite as long as Michel Ardan’s.

It presents her with monumental simplicity, propped against a pillow, silver-haired and huge-eyed, smelling a sprig of violets. Roland Barthes wrote an entire book, Camera Lucida (1980), that was inspired by this picture, a masterpiece of tenderness that for him demonstrated that Nadar was “the greatest photographer in the world.” Later Nadar and the dying Ernestine also appear touchingly in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life (2013), his unforgettable meditation on the loss of his own wife.

Begley laments that we will never know Ernestine better. But he produces this masterly reflection on her husband’s whirling celebrity:

For all the noise Félix made over his long lifetime, for all the chatter and the tireless agitation of his several tumultuous careers and many transient enthusiasms, it is the quiet pause, the stillness and silence as he released the camera’s shutter, opened and closed in a heartbeat, that makes an irresistible claim on our attention. Proof of his genius, the portraits are his own ticket to the pantheon of great artists.