Considered the father of commercial portrait photography, A. A. Disderi changed the face of photography when he patented the carte de visite process in 1854. He opened his first studio in 1849 in Brest, France, after prior careers as a painter, lingerie maker, and accountant. In 1852 he began studying the wet collodion process which led to his patent of cartes de visite, and by 1854 he had opened the largest portrait studio in Paris. His second studio, specializing in equestrian portraits, opened in 1861, the same year he was reputed to be "the richest photographer in the world." In 1868, a studio branch opened in England. Disderi became a favorite portraitist among the courts of France, England, and Spain, particularly after he was rumored to have made a carte portrait of Napoleon III. Wealth gained from his carte de visite business, however, did not keep Disderi from experiencing financial collapse. He died in Paris, in 1889, blind, deaf, and destitute.
Cartes are small photographic portraits pasted on cards engraved with the sitter's name. Originally presented as calling cards by the middle and upper classes, their inexpensive cost soon allowed all segments of society to possess examples of the young process of photography. Cartes evolved into a highly collectible commodity once portraits of royalty, artists, and entertainers were made available. The inexpensive portraits were then placed in albums or traded, not unlike twentieth-century sports trading cards.
The cartes are usually albumen photographs made from wet collodion glass negatives, one of the earliest repeatable photographic processes. The camera used to produce carte images normally allowed production of up to eight images per negative. Disderi, however, patented the process to accommodate up to ten portraits. The camera operated via four lenses and a sliding plate with a vertical and horizontal divider that allowed multiple images to be made on a single negative.
The Duke of Polignac is a curiosity—the first two images depict the duke in what may be a swim suit or underclothes. Perhaps intended as a physical study, it is doubtful that royalty would normally appear in such a state of undress. The remaining portraits attempt a sense of casual formality. Studio records indicate that this portrait was taken prior to November 1858.