A Note by R. Derek Wood on the Daguerréotype Portrait said to be of M. Huet, 1837
(This critical Note was submitted in French to Études photographiques but was never printed in that journal. Instead it was placed on-line in August 1999 in French and in English on the French website Collodions & Clopinettes.)
In Études photographiques (Société française de photographie), November 1998, No. 5, p. 4, an illustration is inserted of a daguerréotype in the collection of Marc Pagneux. It is described as a daguerréotype portrait taken by Daguerre himself of M. Huet, 1837 and would therefore be the oldest surviving photographic portrait. The caption to the illustration adds that this daguerréotype is 5.8 x 4.5 cm in size and shows Nicolas Huet, peintre naturaliste au Muséum dhistoire naturelle. No more information is provided about the daguerréotype, and in particular there is good reason to be disappointed that no explanation is given for saying it represents Nicolas Hüet. For such an identification is very puzzling. The Dictionnaire de Biographie Française (Paris: Libraire Letouzey 1989, tome 17, 142235) lists nineteen persons with the name of Huet, and No.16 is Hüet, Nicolas, peintre (Paris 1770 id. 26 déc 1830). ...Il entra en oct 1804, comme dessinateur, au Muséum dhistoire naturelle. It would be interesting to have an assessment from a wide number of people as to their idea of the most likely age of the man featured in this daguerréotype (the image can also be seen on the Société française de photographie website, but it is unlikely to be of a man old enough to have been born in 1770, and certainly not of one who had died in 1830, as did Nicolas Hüet!
If not Nicolas Hüet, then could the daguerréotype be of any other member of his family? Of some help here is a book by C. Gabillot on Les Hüet, JeanBaptiste et ses Trois fils, published in Paris in 1892. The three sons are dealt with rather briefly within the last chapter (ix, pp. 130146). Nicolas, who became artist at the Muséum dhistoire naturelle, was the eldest of three brothers. As already mentioned above, he is said to have been born in 1770, dying in Paris on 29 December 1830. François Villiers Hüet was the next born, on 14 January 1772. He lived for many years in London where he died in 1813. Like the rest of the family he became an artist and painted miniatures of his father and older brother Nicolas which at the time Gabillot was writing his book were in the possession of a M. Alphonse Prevost of Clarmont. The third of the brothers was JeanBaptiste [junior] born 19 December 1772, died in 1832. He might be easily indentified in any portrait, as he lost his right arm. He was the only one of the three brothers to have children. His son Constance in turn had a son called Joseph, who (significantly for our own investigation) became aide de naturaliste au Muséum. Joseph (great nephew of Nicolas) is a very strong candidate to be the man whose portrait was taken on the daguerréotype under discussion. As the year of Josephs birth (or that of his father) is not given in Gabillots book a comparision with the likely age of the likeness shown on the daguerréotype is difficult. However, as his grandfather was born at the end of 1772, Joseph is unlikely to have been born before 1813, and quite likely in the 1820s. Joseph supplied information about the family and provided illustrations when C. Gabillot was preparing his book of 1892, so it would appear Joseph was still alive close to the end of the century.
Yet identifying the correct person pictured on the daguerréotype is less important than the year it was taken. In the same November 1998 issue of Études photographiques, the editor André Gunthert, obviously stimulated by the apparent dating of 1837, wrote an article on the time of exposure required by the first daguerréotypes. But it would be extremely surprising, indeed entirely inconsistent with all other sources, that Daguerre, two years before he was ready to divulge the technique to the world, had apparently (on such poorly considered evidence) already obtained an image by an exposure short enough to take a likeness of a living man. The daguerréotype image of M. Huet should not have been released to the public in Études photographiques without any explanation for making a specific identification of the person and without any discussion as to why that date of 1837 can have any credence. It is essential for the daguerréotype portrait of Hüet to be featured again in a future issue of Études photographiques, this time with an illustration of the inscription of the date on the daguerréotype, and with more information such as the nature and placing of that inscription.
2. The response of an artist to the first reports of the Daguerréotype.
Apart from the above family, it is necessary to consider if any other Huet would be in a position to have his portrait taken by Daguerre. One candidate is the more well known artist Paul Huet (18031869), listed as Huet, No.17 in the Dictionnaire de Biographie Française and the subject of a biographical work by his son RenéPaul Huet who in 1911 published Paul Huet (18031869), daprès ses notes, sa correspondance, ses contemporains. A photographic portrait of Paul Huet as a bearded elderly man, appears as the frontispiece. While obviously taken in the 1860s towards the end of his life, it does seem to show a different person to that of the early daguerréotype. However, the subject of Daguerres invention and its effect on artists does feature in a letter Paul Huet wrote in May 1839 to the painter Henri Decaisne which is of more general interest:
1. Paul Huets words were faiseurs de ponts neufs, doubtless an idiomatic phrase in 1839, the tone now obscured. The translation here into English is without doubt inadequate. The word faiseur is usually derisive, as can be gauged from various other present meanings provided in French Dictionaries as doer, humbug or fraudster.
R. Derek WOOD