Louis Daguerre may have his name most linked to the groundbreaking photographic process he created — the daguerreotype — but the French inventor hardly stopped there with his experiments with imaging. In 1822, he also invented the diorama, and although he exhibited them around France and England, only his last still survives.
However, even that diorama almost didn’t make it to the 21st century. Located in Saint Gervais-Saint Protais church in Bry-sur-Marne, a town outside of Paris where he lived the last years of his life until his death in 1851, the diorama was installed in 1839. The piece measures over 18 feet tall and 20 feet wide and was installed in front of a small rotunda for depth. It was declared a historical monument in 1913, yet it’s only a century later that it has been restored. It suffered a couple of destructive restoration attempts in the 20th century, but was mostly just a victim of neglect until the town mayor Jean-Pierre Spilbauer made it a personal focus in 2007. Now it’s back to its luminous self through support from a Getty Foundation grant.
Daguerre wasn’t just interesting in photography, but also the dynamics of light, particularly in his own paintings. In the 19th century the panoramic painting was a popular form and people would line up to view these huge landscapes or battle scenes as if they were theater. Through the diorama, Daguerre did one better by actually turning a painting into a scene of movement. By using the reflection and refraction of changing light and semi-transparent canvases, there could be alterations in the actual light on the image, such as the one in Bry-sur-Marne. The alterations of natural light in the trompe l’oeil diorama positioned behind the altar would cause the candles in the church scene to flicker and the Gothic architecture to fade to night when backlit and make the church appear longer than it was. As Melissa Abraham wrote on the Getty Foundation’s article on the project:
“These works of art appeared to move and change in such a realistic manner that they were sometimes referred to as performances of realistic illusion, and were arguably the precursors to cinema and 3D imagery.”
Bry-sur-Marne is a small town with a population just over 15,000, but they’re aiming to preserve the diorama and other historical places and collections related to Daguerre to garner interest in the town and its place in art history. The Association Louis Daguerre lists not just the diorama, but also Daguerre’s former home that’s now a museum with collections on the inventor that are owned by Bry-sur-Marne. And now with the new restoration, his final spectacular illusion has been resurrected to fascinate another century of viewers.