Louis De Clercq: 19th-Century Traveler and Calotypist

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Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd.

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By Alex Novak
De Clercq - Seville, Alcasar Grande Cour
De Clercq - Seville, Alcasar Grande Cour

Louis-Constantine-Henri-Francois Xavier De Clercq was born on Christmas Day in 1836. Doubly blessed with the support of a wealthy French family, De Clercq early on fell in love with travel, archeology and ancient cultures.

But the beginnings were not auspicious for the young De Clercq. Even at 23, he had not yet been meaningfully employed. Through family influence he became a courier for Napoleon III during the Italian campaigns in early 1859.

Other friends of his family in their efforts to give the young man a more classic experience would certainly influence him in what was to become his most important life work. Noted archeologist and a friend of De Clercq's brother-in-law the marquis Melchior de Vogue and Emmanuel-Guillaume Rey, an historian of Crusader Castles, were to play major roles in this life change. Melchior de Vogue suggested that Rey hire the young De Clercq as Rey's assistant on an expedition to Syria and Asia Minor that was being commissioned by the French Ministry of Public Instruction.

De Clercq - Heliopolis (Baalbeck), The Temple of the Sun, Syria
De Clercq - Heliopolis (Baalbeck), The Temple of the Sun, Syria

After interrupting a trip to Switzerland, De Clercq joined the expedition in August and remained with Rey until December 5, 1859.

Part of the reason for Rey's hiring of De Clercq apparently stemmed from the young man's ability with a camera. According to Rey's notes, "his experience and success as a photographer promised that I would have in him a useful assistant."

Oddly enough, little is actually known about De Clercq's early photographic training and experience. Through the recent discovery of De Clercq's waxed paper negatives, or calotypes, we may now surmise that photographer Gustave Le Gray's teachings may have been influential on De Clercq, either before or during his journeys. There have also been other clues noted by other authors, including De Clercq's own note about pursuing his work "with perseverance," which was a phrase that Le Gray was very fond of repeating and which provided ironic fodder for his critics. As Mayer notes in the very excellent Louis De Clercq: Voyage en Orient, "The fact that his work is brilliantly executed with a consistent vision of his subjects throughout the entire corpus of the pictures, makes it difficult not to see the force of Le Gray's influence."

De Clercq's use of waxed paper negatives (calotypes) was probably due to the influence or even direct suggestion of Le Gray, who had perfected and registered several waxed paper processes in France before he left for Syria and Egypt in the 1860s himself.

In 1861, De Clercq wound up publishing some 222 photographs in six volumes: I. Picturesque views of the cities and monuments of Syria; II. Castles in Syria at the time of the Crusades; III. Views of Jerusalem and of the Holy Places in Palestine; IV. The Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem; V. Monuments and picturesque sites in Egypt; VI. Voyage in Spain, views and picturesque monuments. He exhibited photographs from these sets almost immediately at the 4th Exhibition of the SFP (Societe Francaise de Photographie) in Paris, even though he was apparently not a member at the time.

Although he self-published these volumes in a reported edition of 50, only about a dozen copies--both intact and broken--are known to have survived. Most of these copies are in public institutions.

De Clercq died in his hometown of Oignies on December 27, 1901, just two days after his 65th birthday.

At his death he was best known for his fabulous collection of artifacts, which now resides at the Louvre, but today it is his photographs that still awe and inspire us.

This web exhibition covers all phases of De Clercq's travel and work--from Syria to Egypt to Spain. There are rare positive prints, unique paper negatives and important matching sets of print and paper negative.