Drawn by Light. Camille Corot and his `cliché-verre´ experiments

Cliché-verre is an ambivalent thing, an inanity, the zero point in the graphic arts of the second half of the 19th century, to cite the opinion of Roland Barthes.(1) The wide variety of terms used to describe this phenomenon in itself speaks volumes: “dessin sur verre pour photographie”, “photogenic drawing”, “dessin héliographique”, “Hyalographie” (glass print), “etching on glass”, “autographische Radierung”, “dessin sur verre bichromaté”, “cliché glace”, “Diaphanradierung” or “Glassklischeedruck”. Situated somewhere between drawing, printing and photography, cliché-verre seems from the outset to have eluded firm definition; and even before agreement was reached on a term for it, the phenomenon of cliché-verre had already disappeared. The lack of differentiation, the fact that it was neither pure drawing, printing or photography, nor even a bit of each, resulted in the negative reputation that was initially attached to cliché-verre, namely that of having neither the power of printing, nor the spontaneity of drawing nor the magical quality of photography. The deficiency it was felt to have consisted in the absence of traditional rules and learnable skills, the lack of a specific technique, which gave the impression of the uncertainty or neutrality of cliché-verre among the various graphic art techniques.

1) Camille Corot, The Girl and Death, Cliché-verre, (19,3 x 13,8 cm)

Indeed, cliché-verre represents that moment in which art is uncontrolled, in which nature itself – in the form of light – seems to assume control, quite contrary to the application of any technique. The artist drew on a glass plate coated with ground, but not with an abrasive stylus or with pen and ink, but with an etching needle or brush handle. The result was not a drawing for its own sake, but rather a blueprint that could be transferred to another image carrier, a negative. The glass plate was placed on light-sensitive paper and both were then exposed to sunlight, causing the incised drawing to be transferred to the paper without any further steps being necessary. The process required neither printing ink like an engraving or etching, nor the physical power of a press, in order to create an image on the paper. Hence, with a cliché-verre, duplication takes place solely by means of physical and chemical processes. The finished result is not a print but a subsequent, self-generated photographic trace, a drawing created by light on the surface of the paper. Nevertheless, cliché-verre can only to a limited extent be classified as photography, since it does not produce a photographic image of a drawing but a kind of “photogravure” with the aid of a negative.

2) Camille Corot, Little Shepherd, Cliché-verre (35,7 x 28,9 cm)

3) Camille Corot, The forest of the hermit, Cliché-verre, 16,6 x 23,1 cm

A photograph in the true sense, by contrast, is William Henry Fox Talbot’s “photogenic drawing” after the painting “Hagar in the Desert” by Pier Francesco Mola, which was published in “The Pencil of Nature” (1844-46) along with 23 other “photogenic drawings”.(2) However, Talbot had not photographed the drawing itself – it would probably have immediately faded owing to the intensity of the lighting; instead, he used a “fac-simile” after the original. In comparison with Talbot’s “photogenic drawing”, cliché-verre remained an irrelevant sideline of this technique, an experiment with the newly developed, light-sensitive photographic papers which were able to reproduce the lines of a drawing out of themselves. It was an attempt to develop a form of photographic printing comparable to etching or lithography: artists would no longer have to draw on a stone or to transfer compositions onto the etching plate using a stylus in order to obtain the desired images through the complicated process of treatment with acid or the tedious working of calcareous slate. However, these glass prints were never accepted as modern equivalents of the artistic etching or lithograph. The manner of transferring the image lacked the impact of the artist, since there was no physical contact between the “preliminary” drawing and the reproduction on photographic paper owing to the presence of the glass plate between them. Nevertheless, the glass layer, penetrated by nothing but rays of light, produced on the surface of the photographic paper a special aesthetic effect all of its own, an effect which is worth examining more closely in comparison with etching and lithography.

The surface of the salt and albumin paper used is completely smooth and slightly shiny, with the result that the lines appear not to have any depth or volume. Even in the sections where the lines are most dense, such as in the compact tree tops (Figs. 3, 5)(3), the intersecting criss-cross lines which are compressed into dark spots have no substance to them. Even Camille Corot’s original drawing technique remains iridescently flat in its recording of nature and figures. Only on the cliché-verre entitled “The Girl and Death” (Fig. 1)(4) is it possible to reconstruct how the rigid drawing stylus must have moved through the fluid-like coating. A further characteristic of all clichés-verre is that there is no depth of space. Only the “Little Shepherd” (Fig. 2) (5) gives some impression of spatial depth, otherwise the pictorial spaces are left as pallid, white surfaces. Corot’s manner of drawing does not present a straightforward space depicted by means of individual lines, but rather an ad hoc imaginary conception of a landscape. Not unlike lithography, the individual lines lack the dynamism that lends an image vitality and movement. Instead, the lines created by light remain shadows of themselves, without the physicality and volume produced by engraving. Viewing a cliché-verre is like entering a shadow world.

4) Camille Corot, Orpheus leading Eurydice, Cliché-verre, 10,3 x 15,1 cm

5) Camille Corot, The feast of Pan, Cliché-verre,  11,6 x 16,5 cm

Among the imaginary dream worlds characteristic of Corot, there is one motif that has a strong affinity with the medium of cliché-verre: the world of Orpheus (Fig. 4)(6). Corot transfers the realm of the dead described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses to a broad forest grove. Orpheus, with his lyre, steps out of the underworld, silently leading his “so-beloved” (Rainer Maria Rilke), whom he has wrested from death. His divine music had so charmed the god of the infernal realm that he released Orpheus’s deceased wife. Both figures still bear the shadows of the underworld. They have crossed the Styx, which the other inhabitants of Hades, compressed into groups, will never cross again. However, the slim trunk of a tree prevents the advancing couple from coming together; it forms a boundary which Eurydice will not be able to pass owing to her husband’s inadvertence. Her slightly raised right arm and lowered shoulder indicate hesitation, a haltingness in her step. Devoid of volume, she lacks any line of movement that might carry her back to life. At the next moment, Orpheus’s backward glance to reassure himself will cause Eurydice to be banished to Hades forever.

The shadow world depicted corresponds to the graphic structure of cliché-verre, which is itself a shadow image: without substance, devoid of any opacity or finely spun lines that dart across the surface of the paper. The line itself is the shadow, not as the motif but as a trace. And, as if in a final burst of effort, the combination of the Orpheus motif and the absence of technical manipulation is evident in the sheet elegiacally entitled “The Girl and Death” (Fig. 1). Of course, Eurydice can be seen from the underworld waving to her beloved, who is now lost forever. On her right cowers the personification of death, more intimation than reality. Everything has come to an end; her movement has suddenly ossified, just as the movement of the line has been forever fixed as a lifeless trace. At the next moment, foreseeable only to the observer, Eurydice will turn round and in boundless sorrow make her way back to the underworld. But tears and emotions are things cliché-verre was incapable of portraying.

As a neutral without technique, cliché-verre had no history. It suddenly appeared, was repeatedly revived at various intervals by Corot, before completely disappearing as a medium. Therefore, only certain instances of its use have been recorded: in 1853 Corot made his first glass drawings and by 1860 he had produced 50 clichés-verre. After a fairly long interval, he produced a further ten glass drawings in 1871, and shortly before his death, in 1874, his last six clichés-verre came into being.(7) Unlike with the graphic techniques of engraving and etching, there was no development, no accumulation of experience. There were only ever sporadic trials and experiments.

However, despite this lack of a history, there are stories: in 1851 Corot became acquainted with Constant Dutilleux, a painter and lithographer who ran a large studio in Arras, far to the north of Paris. At Dutilleux’s home Corot made the acquaintance of the amateur photographer Adalbert Cuvelier, the professor of drawing Grandguillaume and the lithographer and photographer Charles Desavery. Desavery married one of Dutilleux’s seven daughters. His eldest daughter Elisa was married to the draughtsman and engraver Alfred Robaut, who was later to draw up the first catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works. It was probably at Dutilleux’s studio that Corot first came across glass drawing, inspired by Grandguillaume, who duplicated his first cliché-verre, as well as by Cuvelier and Desavery. The son of Charles Desavery, Eugène, was in close contact with those artists in the forest of Barbizon with whom Corot was also associated. Via Eugène Cuvelier, Charles-Francois Daubigny, who Corot first met in 1851, also became familiar with cliché-verre. This was the group of people – photographers, drawing teachers and artists – who engaged in the “cliché-verre” experiment and were interested in blueprints, transfer techniques and questions of “photogenic painting” (Michel Foucault).

6)  Charles-François Daubigny, The large sheep corral, Cliché-verre, 18,3 x 34,4 cm

7) Charles-François Daubigny, The large sheep corral, Etching, 26 x 36,8 cm

8) Eugène Cuviet, “Hunting prohibited”, Photography (Museum Ludwig) ?32,8 x 26,5 cm 

9) Camille Corot, Memory of Italy, Etching,  29,6 x 22,1 cm

10) Camille Corot, Reading woman beneath trees, Lithography,  26,6 x 18,2 cm

They sought not to establish a distinction between the new technology of photography and the time-honoured printing techniques but rather to make use of the impetus of photography and combine it with traditional processes. Referring to the period between 1860 and 1880, Michel Foucault characterised the “new enthusiasm for images”, in view of their rapid “circulation between camera and easel, between canvas, plate and – exposed [impressionné] or printed [imprimé] – paper” as follows: “with all the newly acquired capabilities came freedom of transfer, relocation, transformation, of similarities and semblances, of reproduction, duplication and falsification.”8 Eugène Cuvelier took photographs in the forest of Barbizon (Fig. 8), which the artists were also drawing and painting; Charles Desavery produced lithographs of drawings by Corot, for which Corot drew on transfer paper, creating what are called “autographs”. Corot also converted the compositions of his clichés-verre into paintings, such as his “Orpheus leading Eurydice”, for which he was also able to make use of a wide variety of drawn studies. Daubigny turned his composition depicting a “large flock of sheep” into a painting, an etching and a cliché-verre (Figs. 6, 7); yet he also made etchings after Old Master paintings in the Louvre, such as landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael.(9) At the same time, drawings were starting to be reproduced photographically. And so images constantly shifted from one medium into another; it was a game of “deceptive identities“. “Nothing was more disagreeable to them [the images] than to remain identical to themselves, captured in a painting, a photograph or an engraving under the signature of an author. No medium, no language, no fixed syntax could hold them back; from their birth or their last resting place they were always capable of stealing away by means of new transfer techniques.”(10) Cliché-verre was one of those transfer techniques; for us today it represents that “smuggled transfer” between the different media whose desire for recognition had been aroused by photography.

Just as suddenly as the “cliché-verre” experiment began, it was laid aside again, particularly because through the involvement of nature the production of these works remained a process without technique. Its existence today is thanks solely to the reprinting efforts of Corot’s friends and the first collectors who, after the death of the artist, turned the “cliché-verre” experiment into an established corpus of works by making further reproductions. Be that as it may: with its restrained, shadowy graphic diction, cliché-verre is still close to that dream of Orpheus for a language without literature. What remains is a drawing without a drawing, a print without a print, a photograph without a photograph – everything at once and yet always something different. One cannot come closer to the zero point of the graphic arts. In every cliché-verre there appears for a short moment a frequently cited opening, which seems to be a seal of authenticity: that opening through which nature, light, has left its trace without the intervention of technique.

11) Charles-François Daubigny, The studio boat, Etching,  10,2 x 13,5 cm

© 2010 / 2012 Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Graphic Collection; Image No. 8, Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Cologne



1 Barthes 2005, p. 33.

2 Fox Talbot 1844/1998, Plate XXIII; on Talbot cf. Geimer 2009, pp. 13-18, 60-69.

3 Delteil 1910, No. 72, No. 79.

4 ibid., No. 45.

5 ibid., No. 49.

6 ibid., No. 77.

7 Concerning Corot and cliché-verre cf. exhibition catalogue. Detroit 1980; Clarke 1996; Exhibition catalogue Dresden 2007; Geismann 2009.

8 Foucault 2010, p. 148.

9 Concerning Daubigny cf. Geissmann 2009, pp. 185 – 240.

10 Foucault 2010, p. 149.

Selected literature:

Roland Barthes, Das Neutrum (Le Neutre. Notes de cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978), published by Eric Marty, edited by Thomas Clerc and translated by Horst Brühmann, Frankfurt 2005.

Michael Clarke, Das graphische Werk der Künstler von Barbizon, in: Corot, Courbet und die Maler von Barbizon. “Les amis de la nature”, eds. Christoph Heilmann et al., Exhibition catalogue. Haus der Kunst Munich, 1996, pp. 342-352.

Loys Delteil, Corot (Le Peintre-Graveur illustré XIXe et XXw siècles, Bd. 5), Paris 1910.

Michel Foucault, Die photogene Malerei (Präsentation), in: Texte zur Theorie der Fotografie. ed. Bernd Stiegler, Stuttgart 2010, pp. 148-156.

Tobias D. Geissmann, Zwischen Zeichnung und Photographie. Die graphische Technik Cliché-verre im Werk der französischen Künstler Corot und Daubigny, Munich 2009.

Peter Geimer, Theorien der Fotografie, Hamburg 2009.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, London 1844 [Reprint with German translation by Wilfried Wiegand, Budapest 1998].


Cliché-verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed. A Survey of the Medium from 1839 to the Present, eds. Elizabeth Glassman and Marilyn F. Symmes. Exhibition catalogue. The Detroit Institute of Arts Detroit et al., Detroit 1980

Zeichnungen des Lichts. Clichés-verre von Corot, Daubigny und anderen aus deutschen Sammlungen, ed. Agnes Matthias, Exhibition catalogue. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Kupferstichkabinett, Munich Berlin 2007.