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Arts of Europe

The MFAH collections of art created on the European continent encompass artistic styles across the time line of history, from the ancient world to the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era to the 21st century.

French, 1820 - 1884
Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau
Albumenized salted paper print

12 9/16 x 14 13/16 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by the
Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund

Arts of Europe

Painter-turned-photographer Gustave Le Gray is best known for his landscape photographs of the forest of Fontainebleau in France. The elegantly twisting branches are the primary emphasis of this photograph, but in the background at left is a subtle testament to Le Gray's own work: the wagon he used to transport his photographic equipment.

Le Gray's photography career spanned a variety of genres, from portraiture to scenes of city life in Paris. He became one of the most influential 19th-century French photographers, not only because of the striking quality of his images but also for the innovations he brought to the then-burgeoning field. The most important contribution Le Gray made to photography was the discovery that the thin application of a wax coating on the paper negative before it was sensitized decreased the exposure time and increased the amount of detail in the final image. As a result, photographs could be much more incisive and detailed, with a wider range of values.

Originally a royal hunting preserve, Fontainebleau had been turned into a public park. The forest became a popular destination for artists because its rich and varied terrain was relatively accessible from Paris. Le Gray made several photographic portraits of individual trees at Fontainebleau. Although he did not identify this beautiful hollow oak, it may be La Reine Blanche (Snow White), named by other artists working in the forest and commonly used as convenient storage for painting supplies and other gear. Le Gray's inclusion of his wagon is an allusion to plein-air photography, which was the movement of photographers out of the studios and into the open country.

To view specific works by Le Gray in the collection, contact the museum's Works on Paper Study Center for an appointment.