Daguerre, Dioramas and Deceptions

diorama (n.) Look up diorama at Dictionary.com1823 as a type of picture-viewing device, from French diorama (1822), from Greek di- “through” (see dia-) + orama “that which is seen, a sight” (see panorama). Meaning “small-scale replica of a scene, etc.” is from 1902.

Most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘diorama’ in the context of museum displays; those occasionally hokey miniature reproductions of historical events, much like the ones that come to life in the film Night at the Museum.  Some people are less familiar with the notion of the diorama as a picture-viewing device, invented in Paris by Louis Daguerre (for whom the Daguerreotype, an early form of photograph, is named) and introduced to the public in 1822.

The diorama was presented in a purpose-built theatre in which the audience was seated on a kind of large turntable that could be turned from one large panorama to the other. The large stage area  – 24 feet wide by 21 feet high – was used to hang a series of painted, layered linen scenes, overlaid in a long, truncated tunnel and left transparent in certain areas, Sunlight was then redirected, through the use of apertures and mirrors, screens, shutters and coloured blinds, and these light effects would cause the painted landscapes to shift and shimmer and change, in shows that lasted about ten to fifteen minutes.  These spontaneous shifts of effect were considered miraculous imitations of nature, conjured magically before the eyes of an astonished audience.   Water would appear to dance in fountains, storms, rainbows, moonlight and starlight were all accompanied by soundscapes of music and mimicry, creating immersive magical environments.

It has often occurred to me that Courbet’s famous Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory (1855), which hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, shimmers in its expansive background with the effects of a diorama, deepening the conceit of the painted landscape on his canvas,  These intimating layers of imitation engage in a reiterative dialectic between his doctrine of Realism and the conjuring tricks that the painting of realism requires, doubling back on the wry oxymoron of his title.  As Picasso put it, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” and perhaps we apprehend Realism more fully when it is filtered through the truth of our imaginations.

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About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist
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