Cartes de Visite - Cartes de visite are small portrait photographs, usually measuring 9 x 6.5cm / 3 1/2 x 2¼in, mounted on a slightly larger card.


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Cartes de Visite

Cartes de Visite

  The Victorians loved to collect small photographic portraits of friends, family and famous people and keep them in albums.

 Cartes de visite are small portrait photographs, usually measuring 9 x 6.5cm / 3 1/2 x 2¼ inches, mounted on a slightly larger card.

 In spite of the name, they were not visiting cards or calling cards. Those were left on the butler's silver tray when making a call; to have left your photograph would have been thought most vulgar. 

 Instead, cartes de visite were given to friends and acquaintances (often on special occasions such as birthdays) or sent to loved ones far away. The name came about simply because they were the same size as visiting cards.
 The carte de visite was invented by a French portrait photographer called Andre-Adolphe Eugene Disderi, who in 1854 patented a four-lensed camera that made eight negatives on one photographic plate.
 The resulting print was cut up to make individual small portraits that were pasted on card. After the French emperor Napoleon III posed for Disderi, cartes de visite became a craze that swiftly spread to other countries, including Britain and the USA.

Ludwig von Beethoven carte de visite
Ludwig von Beethoven
carte de visite

 At the height of the fashion, more than 100 million cartes were produced in a single year. Carte de visite studios sprang up rather as video shops do now and attics were converted as spaces to practise the new art. Cartes were usually kept in albums, which soon became a regular feature in many Victorian parlours.

 It was common to spice up an album with cartes commercially produced and bought from outlets such as stationers and bookshops.

 Victoria and her large family were favourites and the local vicar was rarely absent. It was more daring to collect actors, actresses, singers and circus performers. There were also views of picturesque places.

 The most famous carte photographer was Camille Silvy, a Frenchman who worked in London. Everything about his work shows typical French style and elegance - his way of posing a crinolined lady with a twist to show off her tiny waist, his romantic painted backgrounds, his handsome furniture and ornaments, even his flowing signature, which is often found on the back of his cartes.

 Silvy's career was at its height in the 1860s. This was the peak of the craze for cartes de visite, although they continued to be popular after this and were still being produced at the turn of the century.

 Strangely enough, it is often the earliest ones that have shown least sign of fading. Presumably more care and individual attention was taken when the art was still new, before mass production set in.

Cartes de Visite Collector's Notes

 Cartes de visite make a wonderfully rich field for the collector. As well as being beautiful, amusing or quaint to look at, they are a fund of historical information.

 They are plentiful in supply and moderate in price and there are so many types that almost anyone can find something to reflect their own interests.

 Soldiers, sailors, police, fashion, pets, children with toys, musicians, politicians, scientists, writers, painters, royalty, novelty cards - these are just some of the many categories.

 There are other ways of approaching the subject, too. Some collectors are primarily interested in the work of individual photographers or in the processes used (there were many of these processes in the early days of photography, giving great scope for investigation by the expert; the less technically minded can simply enjoy the results).

 The backs of cards can be almost as interesting as the fronts. Some are blank, but most contain information about the photographer, including the name and address, or slogans such as 'No connection with the Studio next door' or 'Children cannot be guaranteed'. There may be lists of medals won in competitions and sometimes a price list.

 It was common to advertise on the back of cartes that 'This photo is suitable for enlargement to lifesize or reduction for a locket and can be coloured in oil or watercolour' and to inform the client 'Negatives kept and copies can always be had'.

 Repeat business was lucrative and when selling a business the store of negatives would form part of the value.


 The best places to buy cartes are usually photographic or ephemera fairs. If you strike up a relationship with dealers you meet there, they will often be prepared to send special interest cartes to you on approval.

 Cartes can also be found in antiques markets, where they tend to be separated from their albums to maximize profits.

 If you manage to acquire an original family album it can be highly interesting to research the people who are portrayed there. In fact there are few more interesting ways of finding out about the past. If you happen to have cartes of your own family you have the best possible start.


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