b. 5 April 1820; d. 1910

His real name was Gaspard-Felix Tournachon. He was a colourful French caricaturist, writer, portrait photographer and balloonist, and flamboyant showman. Nadar was derived from his nickname ("tourne a dard") meaning "bitter sting", which he earned for his caricatures. He owned a portrait studio with his brother Adrien, from 1853, in the Rue St. Lazare, Paris.

Combining his interest in balloon flying, in 1858 he received a patent for this, and became the first to take pictures from the air. His balloon was enormous, had a two-story gondola, capable of carrying up to fifty men. The balloon had its own darkroom, the process at the time requiring exposure and development whilst the plate was still wet. Two years later capped this by photographing the Paris sewers, using electric light.

He photographed many famous people, including Liszt, Balzac, Delacroix, Emile Zola and Rossini. One of his pictures is that of Victor Hugo, whom he had known for many years, on his death bed, 1885. Though he photographed many women, it is said that he preferred not to, saying that "the images are too true to Nature to please the sitters, even the most beautiful".

His studio became the meeting place for great artists of the day, and in 1874 it housed the first Impressionist exhibition.

In 1857, when establishing his right before a tribunal to use the name "Nadar" he made the following observation:

"The theory of photography can be taught in an hour; the first ideas of how to go about it in a day. What can't be taught... is the feeling for light - the artistic appreciation of effects produced by different...sources; it's the understanding of this or that effect following the lines of the features which required your artistic perception.

What is taught even less, is the immediate understanding of your subject - it's this immediate contact which can put you in sympathy with the sitter, helps you to sum them up, follow their normal attitudes, their ideas, according to their personality, and enables you to make not just a chancy, dreary cardboard copy typical of the merest hack in the darkroom, but a likeness of the most intimate and happy kind...."

© Robert Leggat, 1999.