A Note by R. Derek Wood on the Daguerréotype Portrait said to be of “M. Huet, 1837”

This critical Note was submitted in June 1999 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 Claude-Alice Marillier's unarchived French website ‘Collodions & Clopinettes’.

    In Études photographiques (Société française de photographie), Novembre 1998, No. 5, p. 4-25, 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 [p. 4 of the journal but not online] adds that this daguerréotype is 5.8 x 4.5 cm in size and shows ‘Nicolas Huet, peintre naturaliste au Muséum d’histoire 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, 1422–35) 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 d’histoire 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 [in a 'Communiqué de presse'] 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, Jean–Baptiste et ses Trois fils, published in Paris in 1892. The three sons are dealt with rather briefly within the last chapter (ix, pp. 130–146). Nicolas, who became artist at the Muséum d’histoire 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 Jean–Baptiste [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 Joseph’s birth (or that of his father) is not given in Gabillot’s 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 (1803–1869), listed as Huet, No.17 in the Dictionnaire de Biographie Française and the subject of a biographical work by his son René–Paul Huet who in 1911 published Paul Huet (1803–1869), d’après 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 Daguerre’s 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:

I am stunned by Daguerre’s invention, what do people say about it in Paris, the big town! Progress, emancipation, etc. etc., have you seen this wonder? To be honest with you, I was already a little adverse in spite of my astonishment and admiration. If one must believe the newspapers (the gazette), the poor artists can only shoot themselves. Unusually for me – it is true that I must be getting old – I do not see things so pessimistically, I hope that this will free us from the ‘fixers of new bridges’ [1] and the producers of portraits of the Palais–Royal; the question is better left and without knowing how deeply it can personally affect me, I do not fear for art itself. Je suis tout étourdi de la découverte de Daguerre, que doit–on donc en dire à Paris, la grand’ville! Le progrès. l’émanicipation, etc., etc., avez–vous vu cette merveille? à vrai dire, je suis un peu prévenu malgré mon étonnement et mon admiration. S’il faut en croire les feuilletons (la gazette), les pauvres artistes n’ont plus qu’à se brûler la cervelle. Contre mon habitude, il est vrai que je dois commencer à m’encrasser, je ne vois point les choses si en noir, j’espère que cela nous délivrera des faiseurs de ponts neufs et des fabricants de portraits du Palais–Royal; la question reste mieux tranchée et sans savoir jusqu’à quel point cela peut personnellement m’atteindre, je suis sans inquiétude pour l’art lui–même.

1. Paul Huet’s 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    
Bromley, England    

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