Félix Tournachon was born into a family of printers. In the 1840s, he moved in socialist, bohemian circles and adopted the pseudonym Nadar (from ‘Tourne à dard’, a nickname he gained because of his talent for caricature). Nadar would become extremely famous for Panthéon Nadar, a photographic panorama of contemporary French celebrities.
With this success, Nadar asked his younger brother Adrien Tournachon to apprentice for him. The duo collaborated for a short period of time, their most famous work together being the series of portraits of the mime artist Charles Deburau, illustrating various expressions, like Surprise and Terror. Nadar relied on his earlier study of medicine and neurology to accurately translate the emotions, and Adrien, with his interest in theatre, also played an important role.
Charles Deburau (and before him his father Baptiste) transformed the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot, a base and thieving knave, into a modern free agent whose clever, quicksilver maneuvering appealed not only to the lower classes but also to the literati. Gautier, Champfleury, Baudelaire, and George Sand saw Pierrot as a metaphor for the creative artist—autonomous, ironic, and endlessly imaginative.
The Deburau series was an immediate hit and won a gold medal at the Universal Exposition of 1855; ironically, it was awarded not to Nadar but to his brother, who by then was operating under the name, “Nadar Jeune” and”Nadar jne”. The brothers acrimoniously split up, and in two lawsuits, Félix claimed exclusive rights to the pseudonym Nadar. Weaker Adrien, who was just the type of lovable rogue Pierrot represented, never recovered from the bitter trial which Félix finally won in 1859.