The Rugged Path

The Rugged Path

This short post will be about another image of the “genre” kind which was turned into a stereo card. The publishers were the Gaudin brothers to whom I am very partial since they were the subject of the very first book devoted to the history of photography I wrote (in French) [1]. I did not know as much then as I do now, about stereo photography, about the Gaudin brothers themselves, or even about their production, and I would love to do them justice one day in a proper book, and in English this time. But that’s another story.

img753-Gaudin after Charles Dukes-The Rugged Path-editingsmall

Gaudin brothers. The Rugged Path.

I have never seen the photo above with a title but I have always loved the simplicity of its composition. It is only in the past few weeks that I became aware the image was copied from – or at least very much inspired by – a painting which was exhibited in 1857 at the National Institution of Fine Arts, better known as the Portland Gallery, in Regent Street, London. As with so many genre paintings of the time, which have fallen into disfavour with the public and art historians alike, I do not know the current location of the original. It may be in a private collection or buried in the storage room of some museum, totally forgotten and hidden from the public eye. Fortunately, it was made into a woodcut which was published in the 25 April 1857 issue of The Illustrated Times, where I found it and recognised it immediately as the inspiration for the photograph by the Gaudin brothers [2]. The original canvas was known under the title “A Rugged Path” or “The Rugged Path” –  contemporary sources use both – and was made by British artist Charles Dukes (London, 31 August 1803-Chiswick, 9 September 1865) who specialised in landscapes and rustic genre scenes and exhibited over one hundred works at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Royal Society of British Artists, to name but a few.

img718-Illustrated Times-1857-The Rugged Path-Woodcut-editingsmall

The Illustrated Times, 25 April 1857, p. 257. The Rugged Path. Woodcut after Charles Dukes’ painting.

Woodcuts after paintings generally came with a short introductory text when they were published in an illustrated magazine and this engraving was no exception.

THE “RUGGED PATH”.

(FROM THE PORTLAND GALLERY.)

The “ Rugged Path ” is a picture that is sure to please; for where and when can the spectacle of brotherly love and kindness, and of strength protecting the feebleness of youth, and of beauty looking on, be unpleasing?  Mr. Dukes has done his spiriting very gently in this noticeable work. The family party (we are sure they must be a family party) are, in spite of their rusticity, as graceful and good-looking, and seemingly as fond of one another, as the most attached Materfamilias could desire. The figure of the chubby little fellow secure on the aerial elevation of the fraternal shoulders, and toying with his sister’s tresses [her hat actually], is capital, full of life and spirit and playful fancy. The pretty sister herself is all rosy, healthy, comely, rustic beauty; the path is charmingly rugged and broken up, and fretted into picturesque unevenness. Altogether, cheerfulness and brightness pervade Mr. Dukes’ canvas. The “Rugged Path” is a picture to hang up in the gay little drawing-room of a cottage ornée, where poverty has not as yet entered at the door, nor love flown out of the window; a drawing-room where Paterfamilias and Materfamilias are as fond of each other as they were on the day they were married, and where they sit surrounded by the smiling faces of happy children.

As for the original canvas, it was mentioned a couple of times in the press, shortly after the tenth exhibition of the National Institution of Fine Arts opened its doors at the Portland Gallery on 14 March 1857. There were five hundred and twenty-seven paintings in oil and watercolour on the walls and the reviewers all stress the mediocrity of most of them while singling out a handful works of some merit. Charles Dukes’ painting seems to have belonged to the latter category and featured in the exhibition under number 79. It is described by the art critic of the Morning Advertiser as “a peasant group, by C. Dukes, who always gives a truthful and pleasing delineation of rustic life.” [3] Commenting on painting No. 72, “Armed for Conquest” by A. B. Clay, the reviewer from the London Evening Standard deems the work “characteristically drawn” and adds “and so also is another figure picture, No. 79, ‘A Rugged Path,’ by C. Dukes” [4] The longest comment about the painting, however, is from the quill of the journalist from The Illustrated London News, who writes : “Of a totally different style in its unpretending simplicity is ‘A Rugged Path’ (79), by Mr Dukes. The work has much good modelling and pleasing painting. The woman’s head with her dishevelled hair and laughing face looking up at the gleeful child is very successful.” [5]

The engraving does not seem to do justice to the painting if we are to believe the description given by the journalist and the stereo photo illustrated above is probably only one of the variants of the same image made on the day of the photo shoot. There might be one which is closer to the original composition by Mr. Dukes but that’s the problem with genre stereos after paintings: unless you find the variant that faithfully copies the artist’s canvas it is sometimes very difficult to recognise the photograph as having been inspired by a painting since the photographer used the same characters, props and background to make as many “variations on a theme” as he could without exhausting his models. The idea was that the more negatives you could get, the more copies of the image you could print. One must never forget that in those days photos were contact printed. A piece of sensitive paper was put over the negative into a printing frame and this was exposed to the outside light until the image was deemed good enough to be removed to a dark place, properly fixed, washed, dried, trimmed and finally mounted. It was a long process to get one image. If you needed plenty – and remember that stereos were the first mass-produced photographs – it was better to have a lot of negatives.

Denis Pellerin

NOTES:

[1] The book is entitled Gaudin frères, pionniers de la photographie 1839-1872, and was published by the society of the friends of the Niépce Museum in Chalon-sur-Saône. It accompanied an exhibition about the Gaudin brothers and more especially about the eldest, Marc-Antoine, who, if he was not officially a photographer, was one of the very first amateurs and championed the stereoscope as soon as it appeared. Two of his brothers, Alexis and Charles, ran a shop in Paris which became the largest source of stereo images in France and were the publishers of the photographic journal La Lumière (1851-1867). They also had a studio in England where the photo under study was made. Very interesting people, the Gaudin Brothers !

[2] I have a photographic memory, which is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it made things very easy for me at school and university and has proved invaluable in my work as a photo historian but it is also a curse as I often cannot remember where I have seen the picture which is displayed in my mind’s eye.

[3] Morning Advertiser, Monday 16 March 1857, p. 3 of 8.

[4] London Evening Standard, Tuesday 17 March 1857, p. 1 of 4. [5] Illlustrated London News, Saturday 21 March 1857, p. 11 of 24.

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