Chimney Sweeps Walking, December 1851
salted paper print
15.2 x 19.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 32485)
"Chimney Sweeps Walking" reveals concerns found throughout Charles Nègre's work. The photograph comes from a series made in 1851 along the quais in Paris. In them, he used his camera to extend the painter's vision in search of visual information on human activities. Here, the sweeps have been posed to simulate motion. The subject matter itself comes from the tradition among painters of depicting the street trades of Paris as romantically picturesque. Nègre has shaded the background in his negative to create an atmospheric perspective in the print and to emphasize the broad effect, thus conforming to a painting tradition.
Charles Nègre was among the first generation of painters to turn to photography. Nowhere in the world were so many artists testing the scope of photography in the 1850s as in France. Their spirit of adventure is summed up in Negre's work. His instantaneous market scenes, studies of street trades, archaeological views, nude studies, and portraits all show the inventiveness of that generation. Designing his own lenses, he captured motion, although crudely, making him the earliest of the street photographers. Such exploration astonished the art critics, causing one of them to claim that "Chimney Sweeps Walking" was the equal of a Rembrandt drawing.