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The General Archives of the Palace and the Royal Library house some of the most iconic examples in the history of photography, among them the series of seascapes by Gustave Le Gray (Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d’Oise, 1820−Cairo, 1884).

When photography emerged during the reign of Isabella II, the new art soon became an important part of the royal collections. Portraits, records of artistic heritage, major public works, cultural events, natural disasters, and a rich series of views – not only of European capitals but also of many countries of the Near and Far East – are some of the subjects that make up the best of these photographic holdings.

Names such as Charles Clifford, Jean Laurent, Ángel Alonso Martínez, José Martínez Sánchez, the Infante Sebastián Gabriel de Borbón, the Napoleon Photographic Company, Pedro Martínez de Hebert, Enrique Facio, Ludwik Tarszeński (Count of Lipa), Jules David, André Disdéri, José Muñoz y Gaviria (Viscount of San Javier), Louis Vernay (Count of Vernay), William Atkinson, José Spreafico, Altobelli & Mollins, and the Bonfils brothers, among others, attest to the importance of Patrimonio Nacional’s photographic collection.


Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray, a central figure in the history of European photography, was born on 30 August 1820 in the French town of Villiers-le-Bel (Val- d’Oise) into a family of shopkeepers. He earned a bachelor’s degree, but he was more interested in the art world, and in 1842 he became a student of Paul Delaroche at the School of Fine Arts and a copyist at the Louvre. In 1843 he travelled to Rome to study the great masters and the cradle of European civilisation. There he married Palmira Leonardi, with whom he had several children. On returning to Paris in 1847, he carried on working at the Louvre and later for the Cabinet of Prints in the Royal Library. In 1848, after experimenting with the daguerreotype, he tested waxed paper as negatives.

The following year he set up his first studio in the French capital with the intention of becoming a professional photographer. He opened his laboratory to the public and took on students keen to gain firsthand experience of photographic practice. In 1850 he published his first manual on the subject, A Practical Treatise on Photography, upon Paper and Glass, followed by another two until 1854. Together with Auguste Mestral, Édouard Baldus, Henri Le Secq, and Hippolyte Bayard, he was chosen by the French Historic Monuments Committee to carry out photographic surveys of the country’s architectural heritage – the Mission Héliographique – in 1851. He combined his experiments and teaching with important commissions, such as documenting the Salons held from 1851 to 1853 for Philippe de Chennevières, and immortalising Prince Louis-Napoléon, the son of Napoleon III and Eugénie de Montijo He made other portraits too, but his most interesting photographs are his views of the forests at Fontainebleau. His move to number 35 on the Boulevard des Capucines in 1855 ushered in his most brilliant period. His seascapes taken between 1856 and 1857 on the Normandy and Mediterranean coasts marked the height of his career. In 1857 the Emperor commissioned him to record the military exercises carried out at Châlons- sur-Marne and the subsequent encounter between the French and English fleets at Brest and Cherbourg. These new series are equally attractive and interesting examples of journalism as the previous ones.

Despite Le Gray’s success, his poor management of the business forced him to close it down in February 1860. A string of family tragedies spurred him to abandon his home and depart for the Near East together with Alexandre Dumas the elder to document the latter’s trip to Sicily and the Mediterranean. This fresh opportunity, which seemed to offer the photographer hopes of a glorious comeback, led to a chain of unforeseen circumstances that hastened his downfall. He did an extraordinary report on the ruins and barricades in Palermo, and in Alexandria he broke off his arrangement with the writer. He settled in Egypt as drawing master to the Governor’s children and continued to take photographs until his death in 1884.


Gustave Le Gray asserted the artistic value of photography, earning the greatest admiration and recognition for his series of marine views produced between 1856 and 1857. Fifteen prints make up this exquisite collection of seascapes taken in different sessions, the first ones on the Atlantic coast of Upper Normandy, near the port of Le Havre, and the second group in the Mediterranean port of Sète and nearby coastal areas. A master in the handling of light in all its nuances, Le Gray experimented with its technical possibilities, determined to address the challenge of capturing the sea. The considerably shorter exposure time required by the revolutionary wet collodion technique encouraged him to explore instantaneous photography. Nature became his main testing ground in this endeavour. The impossibility of recording the sea and the sky simultaneously without sacrificing definition led him to combine two negatives – one for the clouds and another for the sea’s surface – joining them at the horizon line, which was powerfully emphasised.

Le Gray’s landmark series of seascapes was first shown in Manchester in the1857 exhibition Art Treasures of the United Kingdom. It achieved unanimous recognition as it represented photography’s foray into the most famous English painting genre exemplified by J. M. William Turner, whose work was well known in France. In his day Marc-Antoine Gaudin, art critic of La Lumièremagazine, judged its showing to be ‘the event of the year’ on account of its technical, aesthetic, and commercial achievements. It was distributed in the form of an album entitled Seascapes, which was hailed as an icon of photography’s golden age.

The photographs were immediately framed individually and displayed in the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso. They remained there until it was decided to keep them in the General Archives of the Palace together with the rest of the photographic holdings. To present them to the public, their original simple half-round frames crafted by artisan Antonio Girón have been recovered.

This prized set is recorded as arriving at the Royal Library on 16 March 1859 in a ‘scarlet velvet portfolio with photographic views of a seaport’.

This exhibition shows fifteen albumen prints from Gustave Le Gray’s famous series of Seascapes. The set came to the Royal Household in 1859, during the reign of Isabella II, and is preserved in the General Archives of the Palace.