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Lost Art of the Diorama

Louis Daguerre, one of the pioneers of photography, made a very unusual diorama piece called La cathédrale imaginaire, installed in the small church of Sts. Gervais and Protais in Bry-sur-Marne (Val-de-Marne). It has been undergoing a complete renovation for the last seven years and was just reopened to the public earlier this month. In the specially lighted space behind the church's altar, a sleight of hand makes a cathedral-like nave appear to open up into the distance. Even stranger, as the sunlight in the church changes, the illusion can appear to shift from day to night. Claire Guillot reported on the work in a post (Le diorama, la cathédrale imaginaire de Louis Daguerre, de retour dans l’église Bry-sur-Marne, September 16) on the Instantanés blog hosted by Le Monde (my translation):
This magical trompe-l’œil dates from the 19th century and it is the work of Louis Daguerre (1787-1851). What one knows less about Daguerre is that before he worked on the technique that became the daguerrotype, he had known glory and fortune with another invention, the diorama. At a time when neither photography nor cinema existed, this inventor had imagined the 19th century's "sound and light show." A painter specializing in theater backdrops, he had had the idea to paint a canvas on both sides, then to illuminate the canvas with a complex system of mirrors and colored glass, hiding certain parts and lighting others. The whole thing works together to tell stories and give the illusion of animation.

The success of his dioramas was such that in 1822 he had a building constructed, to be dedicated to his invention, on the Rue Samson in Paris. The location, armed with huge windows designed to make sunlight enter, was in use until 1839, when a fire completely destroyed it. People came from all over France and abroad to discover the immense painted canvases of faraway countries: Rome, Egypt... They also went there to follow the news, as people would do in movie theaters later on.

With all of the paintings having been destroyed, the only Daguerre diorama that survives today is the one in Bry-sur-Marne, in the Val-de-Marne, where it was installed in 1842. Louis Daguerre had bought an immense property in the town, thanks to the income from the French government for his discovery of photography and his work on the diorama. At the request of a wealthy resident, Daguerre took on the mission of transforming the modest village church into a Gothic cathedral.
Guillot's post has many more pictures and details.

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