“Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, and art that excites the most astute minds — and one that can be practiced by any imbecile.” -Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)

Becoming Nadar

While best known as an early photographic portraitist, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon started out as a medical student, wrote criticisms of the theatre, open and ran a caricature studio, published a novel and became an aeronaut of hot air ballooning. His father died in 1837 so at the age of 17, using the teenage language of his friends, added “dar” to his last name making it Tournachondar soon shortening it to Nadar.

When he was 19, he founded a literary magazine Livre d’Or — Golden Book — with the painter and engraver Léon Noël that lasted only nine issues, friendships he had cultivated lasted a lifetime. He knew Alexandre Dumas and Romantic poets of the time who would later send friends to Nadar’s portrait studio.

The first studio

Nadar and his brother, Adrien on the suggestion of a friend, opened a photographic studio in Paris. In the 1850s photography was still at its very beginnings. Then, it was a lucrative opportunity for those who pursued it by investing in the new medium. Adrien set up the studio at 11 boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Adrien convinced his brother Nadar that he could run the studio by himself.

Nadar had devoted his time to a large illustration named Pantheon. Unfortunately, Nadar had neglected to obtain permission from one of the people whose caricature appeared in the project. In October of 1854, copies of Pantheon were prohibited from being sold. Nadar who had recently married abandoned the project. He returned to help Adrien’s failing portrait studio. Although Nadar had helped get the endeavor profitable again, by January of 1855, Aiden asked his brother to leave the studio.

Nadar who had contributed to the purchase of a new camera, acquired a position for the studio at the Exposition Universalle as well as arranging for his well-known friends to patronize the studio, felt he was responsible for the studio’s revival.


Adrien had begun signing his work as Nadar Jeune or Nader the Younger. Nadar wanted to be paid for the use of his name. Adrien would have nothing to do with that. To make matters worse, Adrien migrated the studio to a new and larger space he named Tournachon Nadar and Company.

Nadar moved his studio to the first-floor apartment he had on the Rue Saint-Lazare. There he photographed Baudelaire, other modernists, friends and acquaintances. By 1856, Nadar and his wife Ernestine welcomed their son Paul into the world.

Public relations marketing

On Photography: Félix Nadar, 1820-1910
A 360º self-portrait of Félix Nadar. An animated version appears at the end of this post.

Nadar had added photography to his writing and drawings of caricatures. He joined the Société Française de Photographie and had his portraits shown at their annual shows in 1856, 1857 and 1859. He made sure his photography was discussed in the press. He had his name involved in conversations about photography as a modern art.

By December 1857, Nadar had regained the use of his name to the exclusion of others who might want to profit from using it. The loss of the Nadar name caused Adrien to declare bankruptcy. Nadar purchased the studio’s assets. He had decided to make portrait photography his primary means of earning money. He purchased a large building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines that had formerly held the studio of photo pioneer Gustave Le Gray. His new studio opened in 1861 although it was financially shaky.

Famous clients

Toward the end of the 1850s, Nadar had an admirable list of notables sit for his portrait photographs. Artists, members of society and writers like Eugène Delacroix, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Edouard Manet, Jules Verne, Sarah Bernhardt and Emile Zola are only a few of them.

Aerial photography pioneer

Nadar once again felt the tug of something new. By this time photography and human flight merged in his mind. Nadar had wanted to free the camera from the studio. He worked outdoors and even used electric light for some of his work in the catacombs beneath Paris. He explored the possibilities of taking his cameras aloft in hot-air balloons to get a unique perspective for his work. It was no easy task.

At that time, photographs were made on wet, glass plates that had to be developed before they dried. To work aloft, Nadar had to take a darkroom along with him so he could coat then process his plates during the flights. He solved the challenges and made the first aerial photographs of Paris in 1858.

Nadar studio, art gallery

By the 1870s, Nadar’s studio hosted meetings of artists and writers frustrated by politics and the establishment of the time. Artists showed their work. One notable painting was Claude Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) that was made from the second-floor window or Nadar’s studio.

Nadar left the studio to his son Paul and retired to a house in the forest of Sénart. The first public exhibition of Impressionism was held on the second floor of the studio a year later.

Nadar’s life

The Art Story describes Nadar’s as “a flamboyant figure who pursued an expansive set of interests (not all of them successful). He left his mark on nineteenth-century Paris as (often at once) a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, writer and left-wing polemicist, scientist and even aeronaut.”

Nadar’s place in the history of photography as one of its founders is well documented in words and photographs still on display at museums. His works are around 170 years old. They are worth seeing in person if you can.

Opening photo

Top row large photos, left to right: Claude Monet, Charles Baudelaire, Comtesse Laure de Sade. Top row group of photos, clockwise from upper left: Nadar Studio on Boulevard des Capucines, Nadar self-portrait by electric light in the Paris Catacombs, Nadar in the basket of a hot-air balloon, Paris aerials from a hot-air balloon. Bottom row, left to right: Franz Liszt, Edouard Manet, Alexander Dumas, Ernest Henry Shackelton, Sarah Bernhardt.

On Photography: Félix Nadar, 1820-1910
Nadar’s automated self-portrait. This is a modern version. This type of animation was not possible in Nadar’s time.

Sources: The Art Story, The Guardian, The Public Domain Review

There are more short stories about influential photographers in On Photography.