Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Honoré de Balzac

with 13 comments

Famous French writer Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) had a “vague dread” of being photographed; the above daguerrotype by Nadar is the only photographic print we have of him. Like some primitive peoples, and cranky autocrats, Balzac thought the camera steals a part of the soul. Balzac told a friend “every body in its natural state is made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films.” Each time a photograph was made, he believed, a layer would be stripped off to become not life as before but a membrane of memory in a sort of translucent antiworld.

What a curious notion indeed. If only he were half as concerned about his daily food intake as he was with photos. During his all too frequent creative bouts, Balzac would lock himself away, only drinking coffee and eating fruit. When he finally took a break, he would consume huge quantities of food. One record noted that Balzac ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, twelve cutlets of salt-meadow mutton, a duck with turnips, two partridges and a Normandy sole,” at one sitting, not to mention the desserts, fruit and liqueurs.

In 1834, he was diagnosed with arachnoiditis, an inflammation of brain and enlargement of his heart, both caused by consumption of huge quantities of black coffee. When the above photo was taken in 1842, his body had became flabby, his skin sallow, and he developed nervous twitches in his face — and ironically, that is how we remember him in mind, and on stamps and currencies. (Rodin even made a sculpture out of this pose). By the time of his death, he was a broken man; years of illness and working by candlelight had made him blind. Deeply superstitious (as you can see from his notions about photography), Balzac was hurt psychologically by the menthal breakdown of his servant, remarking, “What an omen! I shall never leave this house alive.” As he lay delirious on his deathbed as his heart slowly stopped working, he invoked a doctor-character in his unfinished La Comedie Humaine, “Send for Bianchon. He’ll save me.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 4, 2010 at 12:40 am

Posted in Culture

Tagged with ,

13 Responses

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  1. A very minor, almost OT tangent: is it me, or Balzac’ hand seems disproportionally small compared to his head? I know all contemporaries talked about his “lion” head (or “ugly gigantic” head) – still, his hand is too child-looking for his body.


    June 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm

  2. Fascinating! (100 Oysters!! uh..)
    How contrasting to his contemporary (almost) Emile Zola, I stumbled upon relicts of his obsession with photography in the end of his life, see my post about it. 🙂


    June 5, 2010 at 10:52 pm

  3. He looks like a conservative…sounds like one, too.

    Innocent Bystander

    June 14, 2010 at 11:43 pm

  4. […] 158 ‘Balzac had a similar “vague dread” of being […]

  5. This daguerreotype is from Louis Auguste Bisson http://www.paris.fr/loisirs/portal.lut?page_id=7437&document_type_id=4&document_id=25360&portlet_id=17169&multileveldocument_sheet_id=4160
    This daguerreotype was reproduce by Paul Nadar (this may be the confusion)


    December 17, 2012 at 5:23 am

  6. […] Posts: Honore de Balzac (via Iconic […]

  7. Balzac is the greatest of French writers.
    No one is even close. Camus ?
    Camus was Algerian !

    Bob lemkowitz

    January 7, 2016 at 11:30 pm

  8. Mr. Garfman was a reat Business Agent of Local 306

    Jethroe Malkin

    February 25, 2016 at 10:28 pm

  9. who is Mr. Garfman

    Weldon Quick

    February 25, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    • Whats this about Garfman ?

      Jeff Golub

      May 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    • Harry Garfman was the Business Agent of local 306 the Projectionists Union of the IATSE
      He was a s great a man as Balzac

      Jeff Golub

      November 15, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      • yes I knew Harry and also knew Steve D’ Inzillo local 306 what of it….?

        Crafty Bernstein

        June 9, 2017 at 10:43 pm

  10. Who are these guys ?
    Garfman and D’Inzillo ran local 306 from 1954-1990

    Steve Romance

    July 22, 2017 at 7:43 pm

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