By early 1839 Bayard had begun experimenting with light sensitive chemicals in search of ways to fix an image from nature on paper. He immersed himself in this nascent technology/art form that was soon to be called “photography,” all the while maintaining his job as a bureaucrat. Over the next decade Bayard chose to document the transformation of his adopted city with his camera.
This image of the south side of Notre-Dame partially under scaffolding documents the cathedral during a period in the mid-1840s when it underwent a major renovation conceived of and overseen by the architects Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (1807-1857). Notre-Dame had suffered damage during the French Revolution and then from the destruction of the archbishop’s palace in 1831. It was in such disrepair that it was no longer being used as a place for worship. In their proposal for the renovation, the architects took the history of the original twelfth-century project into account, as well as the many changes that had taken place over seven centuries. In the 1854 Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, Viollet-le-Duc wrote: “To restore a building is not to repair or reconstruct it; it is to reestablish it in a complete condition which may never have existed at any giving moment.”
While photo historian Nancy Keeler has noted that Bayard tended to prefer photographing Paris’s newer monuments, this view of Notre-Dame fits another one of his interests: buildings undergoing renovation (See: 84.XO.968.64, 84.XO.968.131, 84.XO.968.89). He chose to capture the cathedral while it was concealed behind scaffolding rather than after the construction had been completed.
In the aftermath of the April 15-16, 2019 fire that severely damaged Notre-Dame, Bayard’s photograph from over one hundred and seventy years ago is that much more poignant. It serves as a reminder that, by the nineteenth century, the aging cathedral had already endured tragic damage. It will be interesting to see how Viollet-le-Duc’s philosophies come into play as the plans for the twenty-first-century restoration progress.
Carolyn Peter, J. Paul Getty Museum, Department of Photographs
For further information on the nineteenth-century renovation of Notre-Dame see:Bercé, Françoise and Bruno Foucart. Viollet-le-Duc: Architect, Artist, Master of Historic Preservation (Washington, D. C.: The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, 1988).
For more information about Bayard’s interest in the changing Parisian landscape see:
Keeler, Nancy, “Hippolyte Bayard aux origines de la photographie et de la ville moderne. La Recherche Photographique, no. 2 (May 1987): 6-17.