Hélène Bertaux, sculptor, seen by Étienne Carjat

Hélène Bertaux, sculptor, seen by Étienne Carjat

Mme Léon Bertaux - French sculptor

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: July 2016

Historical context

In the second half of the XIXe century, the use of photography and its technical derivatives has developed, despite the many debates that its use and identity arouse in the artistic community. Indeed, in the 1850s and 1860s, it was considered by its opponents, such as Charles Blanc and Henri Delaborde, as a mechanical reproduction, not intellectual and not artistic, unlike print. However, in direct opposition to engraving for the reproduction of works of art, it is considered useful for the transcription of the real, and therefore of the living.

The photographer in this shot, Étienne Carjat, began his career around 1858 thanks to Pierre Petit, himself a professional photographer. He is recognized as a very good caricaturist, specializing in portraiture, just like Gaspard-Félix Tournachon dit Nadar. The photographer opened his first studio in rue Laffitte in 1861 and began to immortalize prominent artists and intellectuals under the Second Empire, such as Gustave Courbet or Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Most of them are his friends, and also follow him in creating a journal titled The boulevard.

Popularized and invented by Eugène Disdéri in the 1850s, business card type photographs were very popular until the late 1860s, encouraging the collection of such portraits of great men and women or of anonymous. This type of photography made it possible to carry out real promotion campaigns for these personalities.

Image Analysis

As usual, Étienne Carjat has his model pose in front of a backdrop devoid of decoration, amplifying its place as the main subject. The sculptor Hélène Bertaux, née Pilate, is presented as an artist and not an already recognized personality. A student of Pierre Hébert, sculptor, she is photographed full-length, busy finalizing the preparatory model for one of her first large private commissions. She wears a work apron that completely covers her city dress, thus erasing the peculiarities of her sex. Leaning over her work, she looks intently at the viewer. The sculptor is not in an attitude of seduction, but of persuasion and strong concentration.

The preparatory model that she thus presents to the public is that of the largest sculpture made by a woman to date. In 1861, Herbet-Briez, a wealthy patron, offered the City of Amiens the sum of 20,000 francs for the erection of a fountain on Place Longueville. This monument should consist of a sculpture representing a nymph with a full-length shell and seven cherubs designed by her son, Léon Herbet. Hélène Bertaux is chosen to accomplish this feat. The work, made in bronze, was inaugurated in 1864. The monumental fountain was transferred to the small gardens on Boulevard de Belfort in 1888, only to be melted down in 1941.


Often forgotten in favor of the most recognized Nadar, Étienne Carjat is nevertheless one of the best photographers of his time, able to reveal the strength of character of his models. Thus, faced with the success of his proofs, Gustave Courbet and Victor Hugo once again commissioned their photographed portraits.

Accustomed to the portrait-charge, Étienne Carjat has captured the unwavering will of Hélène Bertaux and accurately reflects the charisma and grandeur of this sculptor. The commissioner has also chosen a moment in her career that is not trivial: this monumental sculpture which accompanies her in immortality is the work that makes her known.

In 1864, his Young Gauls prisoner (missing plaster, marble version bought by the State in 1867 and kept at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes), one of the very first male nudes made by a woman, allowed her to obtain a first-class medal. Thanks to this work, Hélène Bertaux is one of the sculptors in vogue under the Second Empire and the IIIe République, and received prestigious orders for the new wings of the Louvre or for the Hôtel de Ville. She is also the first woman to earn a first class gold medal for Psyche under the empire of mystery (1889, plaster, 181 × 49 × 43 cm, Sète, Paul-Valéry Museum) on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition of 1889.

In 1881, Hélène Bertaux founded and chaired the Union of Women Painters and Sculptors. Thanks to her feminist struggle, young women can finally access courses offered by the National School of Fine Arts and compete for the Prix de Rome, which they had always been denied.

  • sculpture
  • women
  • artist
  • photography
  • Carjat (Etienne)
  • Nadar (Tournachon Gaspard-Félix, aka)
  • Courbet (Gustave)
  • Ingres (Jean-Auguste-Dominique)
  • Hugo (Victor)
  • Universal exhibitions
  • rome price
  • School of Fine Arts


COLLECTIVE, Étienne Carjat (1828-1906): photographer, cat. exp. (Paris, 1982-1983), Paris, museums of the City of Paris, 1982.

LEPAGE Edouard, A page in the history of the arts in the 19th century. A feminist conquest: Ms. Léon Bertaux, Saint-Michel-de-Chavaignes, Soleil en livres, 2009 (1st ed. Paris, J. Dangon, 1912).

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