These panoramic transparencies were conceived as a continuous narrative of a single trip through the landscapes, parks and gardens of the areas on the outskirts of Paris where the artist's aristocratic audience had their country retreats. The landscapes were also populated with figures which, though discreetly sketchy, were in many cases clearly modelled on real figures from French society of the day, and Carmontelle's audience must have found his narratives especially engaging because they themselves and their country life were the subjects. Carmontelle had always been an extremely astute observer – as his famous series of subtly caricatural society portrait drawings very clearly show – and contemporary accounts suggest his gifts for verbal description, allusion and implication were as great as their visual counterparts. His "performances" must have been something to behold.
Born in 1717, the son of a bootmaker, Carmontelle studied drawing and geometry, and qualified for the title of engineer at the age of twenty-three, after which he entered the service of the Duc de Chevreuse and the Duc de Luynes at the Château de Dampierre, where he taught drawing and mathematics to the children. After working also as a topographical engineer for the Comte Pons de Saint-Maurice, for whom he wrote farces and narratives in addition to his drawing duties, he entered the service of Louis Philippe, Duc d'Orléans in 1759, for whom he was responsible for providing theatrical entertainments. For these performances, he wrote and directed the plays themselves, decorated the scenery and made the costumes, and he also invented an entirely new genre of play, the proverbe dramatique, a scene of light comedy designed to be a point of departure for a theatrical improvisation.
In his work in the visual arts, Carmontelle was no less original and inventive: in 1772-3, while working for the Duc de Chartres on his rural retreat at Monceau, Carmontelle came up with the idea of making a set of transparent paintings to place over the windows of the main reception room, recording precisely the real view through the window in question, but depicting all the trees and flowers in full, lush leaf and bloom, meaning that even in the dead of winter, the Duc could enjoy his garden in all its summer glory. Carmontelle was also responsible for the actual design of the garden itself, which was one of the very first French landscape gardens.
This early experiment with the visual potential of transparent landscape paintings set the scene for the remarkable panoramic landscapes that were to follow. The idea of a continuous roll of painted landscape, intended to be viewed in sections as a narrative, was by no means new – the Japanese emakimono from the late Heian period (794-1185), which were well known in 18th-century France, were just that – but before Carmontelle it seems no-one had attempted to make such continuous landscapes in the form of back-lit transparencies, and the significance of these works in the history of the earliest precursors of the motion picture is therefore immense. Many of the earlier 18th-century experiments with the visual potential of transparent paintings and back lighting had in fact taken place in London. From the 1750s on, various artists and impresarios, ranging from Thomas Gainsborough and Philipp Jacques de Loutherbourg to the great actor David Garrick and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, had devised ever more imaginative and inventive spectacles, using a variety of painted glass transparencies, often superimposed on each other and with extravagant light, music and sound effects, but in narrative terms these creations were all far more limited than what Carmontelle was about to create.
Using the very even-textured and rather translucent wove paper that James Whatman had begun to export to the continent in 1776, Carmontelle embarked in 1783 on a series of monumental panoramic narrative landscapes, painted on hundreds of sheets of Whatman paper, joined together at the edges into a single scroll that was stored on two cylindrical rollers (fig. 1), mounted within a blackout box with two rectangular apertures, one on the back to admit light (usually from oil or kerosene lamps, but also sometimes daylight), and one on the front that functioned as a viewing screen (fig. 2). The standard sheet size for Whatman paper was approximately 45 by 35 cm, and Carmontelle's "screen" was designed to accommodate two such sheets side by side, vertically oriented; his compositions (and narratives) therefore consist of somewhat self-contained scenes that each occupy two sheets of paper. Here, however, the artist appears to have used the sheets of paper horizontally, so the transparency must have been made to be viewed on a different, slightly smaller, light box. As so little visual or written evidence survives of this intrinsically ephemeral art form, we cannot know exactly how long the various transparencies actually were, but we do know that the longest that survives today measures some 42m (138 feet) in length, equating to 119 sheets of paper, or sixty narrative "frames".
Between 1783 and 1790, Carmontelle made nine such enormous transparencies, which he collectively titled Campagnes de France ornées de ses jardins pittoresques appelés jardins anglais. Each of these would have been made to be presented, probably many times over, to the artist's patrons and their families and guests, although the total numbers that might have viewed the performance on any one occasion could not have been more than fifteen or twenty, given the scale of the paintings and the level of detail in the compositions. With a totally cinematic eye, Carmontelle guided his viewer in each of these works on a journey through the locations and estates on the fringes of Paris that his audience knew and loved so well, while at the same time highlighting the activities, charms and foibles of all the players on this social stage, from all strata of society. These works are ultimately a celebration of the status quo during the final years of the ancien régime.
Carmontelle's next transparency, executed in 1798, was very different in character: its subject was The Seasons, and in it the artist suppressed his instincts and made the natural world, rather than social commentary, the heart of his subject.1 Then, at the very end of his long life, between 1800 and 1804, Carmontelle painted another four transparencies which he again titled Campagnes de France, where he returned in a more circumspect way to the theme of his initial, pre-Revolutionary transparencies (though without any reference in the title to the aristocratic parks or jardins anglais of before).
Of the initial series of nine transparencies dating from 1783 and 1792, it appears that none survive complete, and indeed relatively little survives at all. Apart from various relatively small excerpts from these rolls, which do occasionally appear on the market, only three substantial sections were until now known. The largest of these, in a private collection, measures 20m in length, while the Musée Condé, Chantilly, has a section measuring, like the present example, 12.6m in length, and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles has another measuring 3.77m in length. The present section, previously unknown, is therefore a very significant addition to our understanding of Carmontelle's unique works of this type. Laurence Chatel de Brancion, author of the definitive studies of Carmontelle's transparencies2, has examined the work in the original, and has kindly confirmed that in her opinion this is a substantial portion of one of Carmontelle's first group of transparencies, executed in the 1780s, in unusually good condition.
The 1798 transparency of The Seasons is, in contrast, still complete, measuring 42m (138 feet) in length, and is now in the Musée de l'Ile-de-France, Sceaux. Of the four final transparencies, only one appears to be extant, and this is now in the collection of Mrs. Rachel Lambert Mellon at the Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Virginia.
The transparency now being offered for sale measures 14.4m in length, and consists of some 18 ‘frames’ of two sheets of paper. It does seem to have, at each end, a band of black paper, which look very much like the remains of the ‘leader strips’ that are attached to the ends of the panorama that remains fully intact, but all the same, as Laurence Chatel de Brancion has kindly informed us, it is most probably only a portion of a transparency that was originally far longer, like the 1798 transparency of The Seasons.
Both in their technical originality and in their radical blurring of the boundaries between art, theatre and spectacle, Carmontelle’s remarkable and very beautiful landscape transparencies embody the essence of the spirit of the Enlightenment. They are also very moving documents of the last days of the French ancien régime, as they owe not only their subject matter but their very existence to the extraordinary privilege and leisure of the aristocracy in the years leading up to the Revolution. But their significance is not only in relation to their own time: these astonishingly original works also represent an important step in the journey towards the emergence of perhaps the most influential art form of the 20th century, the motion picture. The fact that so very few examples of this remarkable precursor of the cinematic film have survived make the present, newly discovered work all the more significant.
1. See Les Quatre Saisons de Carmontelle, Divertissement et illusions au siècle des Lumières, exhib. cat., Sceaux, Musée de l'île de France, 2008
2. Laurence Chatel de Brancion, Carmontelle, au jardin des illusions, Saint-Rémy-en-l'Eau, 2003; Idem, Carmontelle's Landscape Transparencies: Cinema of the Enlightenment, Los Angeles 2008
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale