He was a one-time actor, a failed painter and a man of modest means who at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th created an immense body of work that systematically chronicled an old Paris that was in the process of disappearing.
From inner courtyards of buildings to prostitutes in the streets, trees on the banks of the Seine to travelling salesmen… His name was Eugène Atget (1857-1927) and he produced more than 10,000 glass plates imprinted with his images taken with a heavy 18×24 bellows camera.
Since the end of his life in the depths of poverty, Atget has never stopped being championed.
The Bibliothèque Nationale in France devoted a huge exhibition to him in 2007.
Man Ray published very early on some of his images in La Révolution Surréaliste .
Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) who worked as an assistant to the American photographer, met Atget in 1926, acquired a selection of his prints and negatives and published two books about him in the United States before the archive (1300 negatives, 5,000 prints) was acquired by Moma in New York.
In 1931 the great art theorist Walter Benjamin wrote some particularly lyrical lines about him in ‘A Short History of Photography’: ‘Atget seeks the forgotten and the forsaken, and hence such pictures are directed against the exotic, ostentatious, romantic sound of city names; they suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship.’
It’s clear that the 20th century observer sees in Atget a genuine and a great artist.
10 November, therefore, marks an important date for the international coterie of Atget enthusiasts as a hitherto unseen archive will be going under the hammer at Christie’s in Paris.
A few months ago the great-niece of the acclaimed modern painter André Derain (1880-1954) – who in 2017 will be the subject of exhibitions at the musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris and the Pompidou Centre – was rifling through documents belonging to her illustrious relation who also practiced photography when she discovered a box containing a cache of Atget photos: 47 prints with an estimated value of 700,000 euros.
Biographies of Eugene Atget mention his relationship with Derain.
The 2007 catalogue, for instance, states, ‘He had always associated with those people who could hold the interest of his distinguished mind.Towards the end of his life, he assiduously climbed the stairs to the apartments of Dignimont, Gromaire and André Derain, less in an attempt to sell his prints than to find enthusiastic observers and companions equal to his intelligence.’ Now we have the evidence.
The great niece explains Derain’s links to photography and Atget with the help of Elodie Morel from Christie’s.
Derain’s choices are remarkable.
The record for an Atget print was set in 2010 in New York when a street scene showing an organ player fetched 503,273 euros according to Artprice, a colossal sum for a photograph.
The auction includes several scenes of this kind such as ‘Guitar Player’, estimated at 30,000 euros and ‘Figurine Seller’, with the same estimate.
The painter was often drawn towards impressive photographs of shop windows. These modern and sophisticated compositions, a pile of disparate objects, often allow a glimpse of a landscape in the glass’ reflection and their estimates range up to 60,000 euros for a Bon Marché shop window.
‘Pharmacy Boulevard de Strasbourg’, estimated at 40,000 euros, reveals girdles, stockings and hernia bandages in a completely surrealist spirit. A print along the same lines, ‘Corsets, Boulevard de Strasbourg’, fetched 410,712 euros in 2014.
In 2010 a view from Notre Dame which is particularly emblematic of Paris sold for 168,750 euros, the highest price ever for paid for an Atget urban landscape.
Included in the auction will be several views of Paris with estimates ranging form 2,000 to 15,000 euros, depending on the interest of the location pictured but also, more generally, on the quality of the print and the depth of blacks. It’s also why the differences in prices for Atget prints are colossal, from 1,000 up to 500,000 euros. ‘The market for Atget is very international. But as is the case for vintage photos as a whole, fans are very picky and are looking for photographs that are rare and in an exceptional state of preservation,’ explains Elodie Morel, the specialist at the Christie’s auction.
It is also worth pointing out that Derain’s collection of photographs contains two exceptional female portraits by the famous British photographer Julia Margareth Cameron (1815-1879) which he probably acquired on a visit to Great Britain. They are estimated at 20,000 euros each.