If in Paris, go to the Musée d’Orsay’s new exhibition about Félix Thiollier, a 19th-century French photographer. The exhibition displays more than 150 photographs and is divided into two parts: the country and the town. The first is more uneven than the second. As a landscape photographer, Thiollier had an eye for cloud effects and the light cast by a low sun, but many of his shots of fields, woodland and rivers feel competent rather than revelatory. His pictures of farmers, fishermen, shepherds and hunters, on the other hand, hum with life and personality. In the 1890s, he took a series of portraits of rural people, which are wonderfully informal. An old lady with wrinkled skin and rheumy eyes sits on a bank of long grass. Two cows haul a wooden cart, spontaneity emanating from the blurry flick of one of their tails. He captures a shepherdess and her son in a misty field through a clearing between a hedge and a tree’s branches. It’s a lyrical moment, and the impression is of Thiollier walking the countryside, documenting life just as he found it.
his exhibition is a fascinating window on a time of change; half elegy for a way of life passing away, half record of another in its infancy. One photograph in the last room sums up the flux. A man stands with a flock sheep on the edge of town while chimneys smoke behind him. Nearly 100 years after his death, this is Thiollier’s first exhibition. He deserves others.
“Félix Thiollier (1842-1914), photographs” is at the Musée d’Orsay until March 10th