Childhood & Early Life
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was born in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d'Oise in France, on November 18, 1787. According to sources, his father remained a royalist even after the outbreak of the ‘French Revolution’ (May 5, 1789 – November 9, 1799). His father named one of his daughters after Marie Antoinette, the last French Queen before the ‘French Revolution.’
Sources mention that Louis’ formal education got disturbed due to the political disruptions during and following the ‘French Revolution.’ He relocated to Paris in 1804 to learn and practice scene painting for the opera. According to some sources, he also excelled in dancing and performed on stage as an extra in the famed Opéra of Paris. Louis did his apprenticeship in theatre design, architecture and panoramic painting under the first French panorama painter Pierre Prévost.
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Initial Career & Creation of a Diorama Theatre
Louis worked as a decorator, manufacturer of mirrors, and as an inland revenue officer, apart from foraying as an artist. With time, he made his mark as a painter of panoramas and designer and painter of theatrical stage illusions.
He joined hands with Troubador painter Charles-Marie Bouton (who also worked at the Panorama under Pierre Prévost) in the spring of 1821 with the objective of developing a ‘diorama’ theatre. While Charles had more experience in painting, Louis was skilled in lighting and scenic effects. Eventually Charles left the project and Louis continued on his own.
The ’diorama’ invented by Louis was opened in Paris on July 11, 1822, near his studio. It was a theatrical experience staged in highly specialised theatres. Two tableaux were shown in the first exhibit of which one was by Louis and the other by Charles. This pattern continued in the exhibitions with each of the tableaux being painted on each side of a large translucent canvas, usually one being a landscape and the other an interior depiction.
In September 1823, another ’diorama’ building was opened in London’s ‘Regent's Park’ where the show’s popularity went further up and paved the way for imitations by other British artists like Clarkson Stanfield and David Roberts.
The experience of viewing a magnificent landscape painting with vivid and detailed pictures that would transform subtly by manipulating screens and shutters with the effects of lights lit at different angles would leave the audience of around 350 awe-struck.
While the huge canvas with two pictures on both sides would remain stationary, after showing the transforming impressions, movements and mood changes of the first picture for around 10 to 15 minutes, the auditorium, cylindrical in shape, would revolve with the entire audience placed on a huge turntable, so that they can view the second painting. Some models of the ‘Diorama’ theatre later even had three paintings.
The ‘Diorama Theatre’ received acclaim from both critics and audience, and evolved as a popular form of entertainment in the mid-1820s, alternative to the well-received panoramic painting. The ‘Regent's Park’ establishment was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1839.
Louis’ exhibitions were shown in different venues, including Paris (1822-28), London (1823-32), Manchester (1825-27), Dublin (1826-28), Liverpool (1827-32), and Edinburgh (1828-36). Some of them were ‘The Valley of Sarnen,’ ‘The Holyrood house Chapel,’ ‘The Roslin Chapel,’ ‘The Harbour of Brest,’ and ‘The Village of Thiers’ among others.
The Daguerreotype Process
Louis came in contact with the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (who had already invented the photographic process of ‘heliography’ sometime around 1822), while he was garnering a camera obscura for his theatrical scene painting work from optician Chevalier in 1829.
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With the objective of shortening the exposure time of his heliography process, Nicéphore decided to include Louis in his research and the two entered into a partnership in 1829. According to the contract between the two, Nicéphore took an undertaking to release details of his heliography process and Louis sworn to secrecy under penalty of damages and also committed to design a camera and improve the heliography process.
Although the two strived to make progress in the heliography process, they went on to develop the photographic process of physautotype instead, in 1832. Lavender oil residue dissolved in alcohol as the photographic agent was applied in producing images in the process. The two were successful in shortening the exposure time of the process to about 8 hours in the sun.
Nicéphore died in 1833, but Louis continued with his experiments. Nicéphore’s son Isidore then inherited rights in the contract. A new version of the contract was made between Isidore and Louis thereafter where the former signed the document confirming that the old photographic process was improved to the extent possible and a new photographic process, which was 60-80 times faster than the heliography process invented by Nicéphore, would bear the name of Louis only.
The new process that Louis invented was named ‘daguerreotype.’ He discovered that when an iodized silver plate is exposed in a camera, a lasting image is obtained if the latent image on the plate is developed exposing it to mercury fumes and then made permanent applying a common salt solution.
After unsuccessful attempts to get private investors interested, Louis decided to go public with his invention in 1839. On January 7, 1839, the invention was made public and elucidated in a joint meeting of the ‘French Academy of Sciences’ and the ‘Académie des Beaux Arts.’ The specific details were, however, not disclosed. The process was then elucidated and demonstrated by Louis only to the Academy's perpetual secretary François Arago, a prominent astronomer and physicist, after getting assurance of maintaining the procedure strictly confidential. The Academy members and some selected individuals, too, were later permitted to examine specimens in the studio of Louis.
Eventually, his process and the images gained acclaim as the news of the ‘daguerreotype’ spread rapidly. In 1839, he was successful in making the French government purchase the rights of his invention for the people of France. In exchange, Louis and Isidore were granted lifetime pensions.
The French Government then presented his invention as a gift from France "free to the world" on August 19, 1839. Complete instructions on the process were also published. However, a few days before such declaration was made by France, Louis’ agent, Miles Berry, applied for a British patent. This resulted in the Great Britain missing the free gift from France and becoming the only nation where payment of license fees was required.
Meanwhile, Louis was elected as an ‘Honorary Academician’ at the ‘National Academy of Design’ in 1839.
Apart from the general masses, the ‘daguerreotype’ process was used by the news media in capturing actual shots of different significant events. These included scenes from the ‘American Civil War’ and the ‘Crimean war.’ According to sources, the first photograph of Abraham Lincoln was also captured using the ‘daguerreotype’ technique.
Writings of Louis include his memoir, ‘Historique et description des procédés du daguerréotype et du diorama,’ (1839) and ‘Nouveau moyen de préparer la couche sensible des plaques destinées à recevoir les images photographiques.’
Later Life, Death & Legacy
During the later phase of his life Louis returned to working on the ‘dioramas’ and painted some for churches in and around the commune of Bry-sur-Marne, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. One of his diorama paintings finds place in the church of Bry-sur-Marne.
Louis succumbed to a heart attack on July 10, 1851 in Bry-sur-Marne and was interred there, where a monument marks his resting place.
He is among the seventy two French mathematicians, scientists, and engineers whose names are engraved on the ‘Eiffel Tower’ in recognition of their contributions.