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Carol Szathmari: An Outstanding 19th Century Romanian Photographer
Dr. Adrian-Silvan Ionescu
Carol Pop de Szathmari was born in Cluj (Klausenburg, or Kolozsvár), Transylvania, on 11 January 1812. He was of noble descent and one can still find his ancestors’ coat-of-arms preserved at the Reformed Church in Cluj. He read law at the Reformed College in his hometown, Cluj. His talent for painting shone out from an early age; this artistic calling proved stronger and he was soon to give up his law career and devote himself to painting. For a short time Szathmari attended the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna; he then turned to a bohemian lifestyle, gaining more knowledge from travel exploits than from his professors.
Being a passionate traveller, Szathmari journeyed through Europe and often crossed the Carpathian Mountains to visit Wallachia and its capital Bucharest, where he eventually settled in 1843. A leading artist in a country with few, if any, gifted local painters, Szathmari was flooded with commissions in the 1840s and 1850s. An accomplished landscape and portrait painter, at ease with both watercolours and oil paints, Szathmari obtained commissions from the wealthy Wallachian boyars (noblemen). A dashing young man, elegantly dressed, fluent in Romanian, German, French and Italian, the painter became valued company in the high-society circles of Bucharest. The self-portrait he took a few years later, showing the artist standing in front of his easel, pallete and brushes in hand, surrounded by his art collections, gives a clear indication of his success.
Szathmari kept up constant, good relations with the successive ruling princes of Wallachia for whom he painted portraits and various other compositions. One of his first patrons was Gheorghe Bibescu, Ruling Prince of Wallachia (1842–1848) and his charming wife, Maritzica. They were both portrayed many times by Szathmari. A miniature portrait of Princess Maritzica Bibescu wearing a rich peasant costume is preserved at the Library of the Romanian Academy in Bucharest. When Bibescu’s brother, Barbu Stirbei, followed on the throne in 1849, he commissioned Szathmari to make three large paintings of his coronation; but somehow the artist never got around to completing them. Years later, the artist was summoned by the officials of the Ministry of Public Education to either produce the commissioned paintings or return the money he had received in advance.
By 1848, Szathmari began to experiment with photography. His first success was a calotype with an armless gesso Cupid. The inscription is in the photographer’s own handwriting and reads: ‘Die aller erste Photographie die ich gemacht habe im Jahre 1848 November’.1 He soon turned to the more accurate and rewarding medium of the wet collodion process and opened a photographic studio.
The outbreak of the Russian-Ottoman War in late June 1853 saw the Romanian principalities occupied by the Russian army. Szathmari’s photographic studio was often visited by generals and other high ranking officers, all posing for eternity. He made acquaintance with everybody who was anybody. Later, these friendships would be instrumental in his activities as a war historian with a camera always at hand. In April 1854, he filled a van with his cameras and glass plates and went to the border of the Danube to document the fighting between the Russian and Turkish armies. He took pictures of both front lines at Oltenitza. He roamed about the opposing front lines and took photographs of the strongholds, the trenches and military camps. One of the pictures he took is of a troop of Turkish cavalrymen, as seen in figure 2. It shows two mounted troopers, rifles in hand, while the other two are dismounted and stand beside their saddled horses. They wear dark blue tunics with thirteen rows of silk worsted cord on the front. All their accoutrements are white. The bugler on the left rests his brass instrument on his hip while the dismounted cavalryman on the right, with his elbow on the saddle, appears to be an officer. Another picture depicts the Oltenitza Quarantine Station, seen in figure 3. Some Russian officers, observing the enemy’s lines through their spyglasses, stand in front of it.
It was probably at that very spot that Szathmari was taken for a Russian spy by the Turkish garrison and fired at. His van offered the perfect target for the Turkish gunners. Fortunately, the artillerymen were not skilled marksmen and missed the artist who was able to take his picture safely. A few years later, Ernest Lacan described those moments in his book Esquisses photographiques. À propos de l’Exposition Universelle et de la Guerre d’Orient: ‘It is not without danger that Mr. de Szathmari did his job. He was near Oltenitza in the first days of April 1854 when the Russians were besieging the town. He wanted to take a picture with the quarantine station. Consequently, he approached the town with the van he used as his laboratory; he then prepared his camera and began his work. He was surprised by a hard blow and, at almost the same time, the sound of a gunshot was heared from the town. Mr. de Szathmari thought that he had chosen a bad place and that it would be better to move out of the Turkis garrison’s line of fire. But he bravely remained there. A second blow vibrated in the air and the same detonation followed an instant later. It was obvious for the artist that he had the honour of being the target and that the fire was becoming more and more menacing and accurate. But the view he was taking was so interesting, the light and shadow so appropriate, that it was impossible for him to make up his mind to leave the spot. And, in addition, his work would be completed in just a few more moments. He waited till everything was ready. It was time to leave. A third canon ball, aimed better than the others, ploughed up the ground a few paces in front of him, covering him with sand. But the picture was magnificent!’ 2
The result of Szathmari’s bravery and hard work was a photographic album that he produced and which revealed such vivid images of the war that it could not but be acclaimed as a valuable work by all those who saw it. His album, containing some two hundred images, became famous due to its presentation at the 1855 Paris World Exhibition and Szathmari was awarded the Second Class Medal for his work.
As described by Ernest Lacan, the album opens with portraits of Russian and Turkish commanders, General Prince Michail Dimitrievitsch Gortschakoff, General Baron Dimitri Erofeevitsch Osten-Sacken, Field Marshal Prince Ivan Feodorovitsch Paskevitsch, Commissioner Alexander Ivanovitsch Budberg, General Pavel Eustatievitsch Kotzebue, General Alexandr Nicolaevitsch Lüders and two commanders who fell on the battlefield – Generals Selvan, killed at Silistra, and Soimonoff, killed at Inkerman. Following these portraits, there is one of Omer Pasha, the Turkish commander-in-chief, Iskender Bey (the Muslim name of the Polish Count Ilinski who volunteered in the Turkish army and distinguished himself in battle), young Tevfik Pasha killed at Balaklava, Dervish Pasha and two officers from the British and French allied armies, Colonels Simmons and Dieu. There are also various kinds of soldiers and local people, infantrymen and Cossacks from the Russian forces, Turkish bashibouzouks (irregular cavalrymen) and nizamyie (regular infantrymen), Austrian lancers, dragoons and infantrymen, a few gypsies and Romanian merchants and artisans.
The press praised this work which was presented to Napoleon III in a private audience. The French Photographic Society’s publication La Lumière of 9 June 1855 enthusiastically reported: ‘M. de Szathmari, the skilled photographer from Bucharest, whose arrival we already announced, had the honour to be received by the Emperor on Wednesday evening. His Majesty wanted to see all the pictures bound in his magnificent album; he was quite interested by the Russian and Turkish generals’ portraits. As an eye-witness of so many events connected with the Oriental War, and being on close terms with most of those who distinguished themselves in that great fight, Mr. de Szathmari was able to give interesting details to His Majesty. While accepting his homage, the Emperor congratulated the author of this interesting collection.’ 3
Szathmari was well-received by Queen Victoria at Osborne Castle on the Isle of Wight on 19 July 1855. The audience lasted a couple of hours because the Queen, Prince Albert and their guest, King Leopold of the Belgians, took a deep interest in those war photographs. La Lumière, the same French photographic magazine mentioned above, stated : ‘The portraits of British, French, Turkish and Russian generals interested them most. The Queen graciously congratulated Mr. de Szathmari on his beautiful work and graciously accepting his homage, Her Majesty announced him that a gold medal was to be bestowed upon him as a token of appreciation.’ 4
Along with the photographic album exhibited in Paris at the World Exhibition, and those offered to Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, other copies were given to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Tsar Alexander II, the King of Württemberg and Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach who, in appreciation of his work, awarded the author various medals. 5
Some of the photographs provided the inspiration for the coloured lithographs which Szathmari commissioned to be printed in Vienna in 1855. Two are preserved at the Library of the Romanian Academy: Arabian Bashibouzouks, as seen in figure 4, and Bashibouzouk and Arnaout. The captions are in German : ‘Nach einer von Szathmari vor Oltenitza verfertigten und collorirten Photographie’.6
From that time on, photography, painting and lithography were always closely connected in Szathmari’s career. He frequently used photography for lithographic prints. However, he was not the only one to do so. Marie-Alexandre Alophe (1812–1883), combined photography with lithography. The great Nadar (1820-1910) prepared his Panthéon by photographing those he portrayed in his successful cartoons. Enthusiastic crowds flocked in front of the shops’ windows where his large lithograph, printed by Lemercier, was on display. 7 Etienne Carjat (1828-1906), Nadar’s close friend, followed this example of using photography as the starting point for his cartoons.
In 1860, Szathmari edited the first illustrated magazine in Bucharest, Illustratiunea. Jurnal Universal (The Illustration. Universal Journal). Besides woodcuts brought directly from Paris, which were already used in L’Illustration, he also printed his own drawings. Lacking good engravers, he had to give up this enterprise after around a year.
He also contributed written material to the Viennese periodical Photographische Correspondenz where his column was entitled Photographie Parisienne.8
In 1863, Szathmari took the official portraits of the Ruling Prince Alexandru Ioan I. and of his wife, Princess Helene that were later lithographed in Paris by Lemercier. The same year he received the title of Ruling Prince’s Court Painter and Photographer. He offered Princess Helene a tiny album with carte-de-visite pictures of folk types and Bucharest images, two of them birds-eye-views taken from the hills surrounding the city. Elegantly bound, the album has the following hand written title and dedication on the front page: Souvenir de la Roumanie, dedié a son Altesse Sérénissime Hélène, Princesse Régnante de la Roumanie, par Charles Pap de Szathmari, Peintre et Photographe de la Cour de Son Altesse Sérénissime le Prince Régnant.9
Szathmari had long been attracted by folk types and produced a large series of pictures with peasants, gypsies, postillions, merchants and artisans. He toured the fairs and the crowded streets of the town in search of picturesque types. As seen in figure 5, a postillion, clad in his fully embroidered costume, posed proudly besides a fence in the artist’s studio. He also brought in his studio two gypsy comedians with their bear which they made dance for the audience in public places or markets. Szathmari was his own set designer for this kind of staged pictures: logs, wooden fences, rocks, bushes, fir branches and even blocks of ice were brought inside in order to suggest an outdoor pose. Some of his pictures were used as models for lithographs which he drew himself on stone and printed in his own workshop.
In 1860 and 1864 he was in the ruling prince’s entourage when Alexandru Ioan I. paid his homage to the sultan in Constantinople. Szathmari made sketches at receptions and official meetings that were later published in illustrated magazines such as Illustratiunea. Jurnal Universal10, L’Illustration11 and Le Monde Illustré.12 The sultan awarded Szathmari the Medgidie Order for the works of art he presented. In 1859 he exhibited in Paris a picture with the imposing Bucharest Manuk Inn, at the Société Française de Photographie. In 1864 he became member of that French society.
After Alexandru Ioan’s abdication, the new ruling prince, Carol I. of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, kept Szathmari in his service and appreciated his skill. The painter accompanied the young prince on his trips throughout the country and sketched all the important events he witnessed. Szathmari might have also acted as a guide seeing that he knew almost every spot of historic and cultural interest. He painted many landscapes for his new patron, but also continued to take pictures with his camera. Landscapes, churches, monasteries and peasants were his favourite subjects.
In 1869, Szathmari completed a large album of photographs called România containing landscapes and historic monuments he pictured beginning with 1867. 13 The plates measured 29.5 x 35.8 cm. Another large album was the one in which he depicted the Curtea de Arges Metropolitan Church. His albums were displayed – with great success – at both the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1873 Weltausstellung in Vienna. His pictures of peasants in traditional costumes, Romanian images and the large album dedicated to Curtea de Arges metropolitan church received an honorary mention in Paris and were awarded a medal in Vienna.
Szathmari published a chromolithographic portfolio called România. Albumul Înaltimei Salle Domnitorului CAROL I. Peisage frumose si costume gratiose ce avemu în terra (Romania. His Highness the Ruling Prince Carol I’s Album. Beautiful landscapes and nice costumes from our country) in 1868. 14 He based most of his sketches on his own photographs of folk types and the album was printed in his own workshop.
In 1870 Szathmari became a member of the Vienna Photographic Society.
At the outbreak of the 1877 Oriental War he followed his Prince onto the battlefield. He took pictures of his patron surrounded by his staff and foreign military attachés, the general headquarters, military camps, troops waiting to be reviewed, military hospitals, batteries and captured ships on the Danube. In figure 6 you can see a mass held on the field which was attended by the ruling prince Carol I. and his generals and aides-de-camp. A rough wooden structure covered with a white table cloth stands for an open air altar; there is a cross and a Bible between two candles on it. Four priests in full regalia are ready to performe the Greek orthodox service.
After the war, Szathmari’s pictures were bound in the album Suvenir din Resbelul 1877–78 (Souvenir of the War 1877–78). The album circulated either with leather or velvet covers. Each picture had a handwritten caption by the author. 15 Although expensive, it was a much cherished album. Some of his photographs provided the inspiration for the large watercolours commissioned by the ruling prince for his private collection. Others were published in illustrated magazines such as L’Illustration, The Illustrated London News, Illustrirte Zeitung and Resboiul.16
In his official capacity Szathmari captured the ruling prince’s likeness many times. You can see one of the first portraits from 1866, soon after the young Prince’s arrival in Romania, in figure 7. The artist water coloured the salt-paper print in order to turn it into a work ready to be framed. Unlike that one, the 1881 portrait seen in figure 8 was entirely painted even though it was inspired by a previously taken photograph.
In 1881, when Prince Carol I. became the first King of Romania, Szathmari, in partnership with another photographer, Andreas D. Reiser, took pictures at the coronation ceremonies. However, the inclement weather made it impossible for them to get good pictures. Consequently, Szathmari made drawings after the faded photographs and completed an imposing chromolithographic album. In one of them is seen Queen Elizabeth and her brother-in-law with his two sons going to a parade in the court carriage. That album was his last major work.
The Royal Court painter and photographer Carol Pop de Szathmari died in Bucharest on 3 June 1887.
Enterprising and industrious, a master of a multitude of artistic expressions, genres and techniques including miniatures, lithography, watercolour, portraits in oil and landscape painting, a passionate traveller with specific interests in ethnography and architectural themes, Szathmari understood the great advantages of photography in capturing evanescent moments faster and better than other artistic media. His legacy is one of enduring interest.