The views of cities had their development, together with maps, with the expansion of scientific and military travel, as an instrument of imperial rule from the 18th century and the subsequent expansion of commercial traffic. In the visual culture of the 19th century, marked by the rise of travel and illustrated dissemination, the views of cities made known the distant territories of Europe, in our case emancipated from the colonial regime, in others as a record of overseas possessions. The views of Buenos Aires make up a rich iconographic corpus that aroused the interest of historians and collectors; in particular those represented from the river because they allow us to recognize the buildings that indicate its growth over time; in addition to adding the picturesque charm of the waves and the movement of the different boats. These ships, while generating the depth of the pictorial space, show the commercial activity or the military situation of the region at a given moment. Without a doubt, the existence of a watercolor is outstanding, used as a model for the lithographs of the view of Buenos Aires from the pier by Louis Le Breton.
Louis Le Breton was born in 1818 and died in 1866 in Douarnenez, a fishing village in Brittany. He studied naval medicine at the École de santé des armées de Brest in 1836 and 1837; the same year he managed to embark as a surgeon of the third class in the corvette Astrolabe, commanded by the Norman Jules Dumont-D´Urville (1790-1842). The expedition's first objective was to explore the Antarctic ice cap -in moments of dispute over its possession- and then the return of D'Urville to Oceania, through the Strait of Magellan, to finalize the pioneering studies begun in the first of Astrolabe between 1826 and 1830. These trips were central to reversing the geographical limits, imposed on the French possessions because of the Napoleonic defeat.
On the long circumvallation trip of 1837-1840, approved by Louis-Philippe, the second corvette Zélée was added under the command of Captain Charles Hector Jacquinot. On this ship traveled the official cartoonist Ernest Goupil (1814-1840), brother of the then famous dealer and publisher Adolphe Goupil. The cartoonist died on January 4, 1840 in Hobart-Town, Tasmania, and the replacement of him by Louis Le Breton was resolved. This episode is the beginning of his long career as an illustrator, which included collaborations on L ’Illustration and El Correo de Ultramar. Le Breton's appointment was upheld by the fact that D'Urville himself had previously commissioned drawings from the 19-year-old young doctor: “At the Zélée, M. Goupil fills his boxes with precious paintings, and at the Astrolabe, the young surgeon Le Breton, who has a remarkable talent in this genre, also makes lovely drawings at my request” (1). A good example of these works before taking office is Emplacement de l'ancienne colonie de Philippeville (Détroit de Magellan), later lithographed by Sabatier for the Lemercier house, included in the scientific collection of the voyage.
This expedition passed through the mouth of the Río de la Plata -at times of conflict between the French government and Juan Manuel de Rosas- on the way to the Strait of Magellan, to enter the Pacific. Therefore, on this trip we do not have views of the city of Buenos Aires; and the iconography of our current territory raised then corresponds to Patagonia and the southern seas. The voyage ended with the arrival at the port of Toulon in November 1840. His achievements were gathered in an edition of twenty-three volumes of text and six of atlases, under the direction of Charles Jacquinot, after D´Urville's death. (2)
Le Breton -it is also often written Lebreton or LeBreton- then served on an expedition to Madagascar, in the French colonial affirmation campaign of the Indian Ocean between 1844 and 1845. From 1848, he held a position in the Dépôt de Cartes et Planes of the French navy in Paris. While he was consolidating the prestige of his illustrator. Among his most interesting works are lithographs dedicated to the Independence and Concord festivities of the National Guard in 1848; the illustrations of Fastes de la marine française. Calendrier pour 1853, with views of the main ports of France and a set of naval uniforms. In 1855 he drew and lithographed an outstanding series on the Crimean War, while the previous year he had produced interesting panoramas, views and plans of Russian cities and forts on the Black Sea. Through his collaboration in illustrated magazines, he made drawings of various motifs, but, without a doubt, the views of coasts and cities were what gave him notoriety, reproduced in different publications over time. However, he also achieved notable repercussions for the illustrations -from Jarrault's engravings- of the 1863 edition of the famous Dictionnaire infernal by Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Planc. He made views of the cities of northern California, and this data is of interest since there is no record of his stay in the area (3). In other words, Le Breton generally worked from pictorial models or photographs. In this regard, lithographic portraits made from photographs of Nadar are known.
The watercolor View of Buenos Aires from the New Customs dock is not signed. We do not know a record of a trip from Le Breton to Buenos Aires, although it certainly cannot be ruled out. In the registry of passengers entering the Buenos Aires dock, the surname appears, without professional data, on the arrival of the Prince from Europe on May 21, 1857, but nothing indicates that it is the French artist; more so because the news of the arrival in the press had mentioned his arrival, and his name has not been located (4). We cannot doubt the authorship of the sight because the lithograph based on it is signed in the image in the way that the authorship of the original work is indicated; in this case bottom right, accompanied by an anchor. It is likely that this refers to her birthplace, since the Douarnenez coat of arms carries it as a central symbol. The cardboard on which the watercolor is mounted bears the inscription in pencil "Aquarelle par Le Breton [illegible] 1860"; on the back of it is stuck the label of the gilder Edan Ainé, awarded in the 1848 exhibition, who worked for the imperial museums; an item that affirms dating.
Most likely, Le Breton made his work around 1860, based on other images available and at his fingertips. Undoubtedly, the most similar is the lithograph drawn by Isidore Deroy (Paris, 1797-1886), printed by L. Turgis Jne at his home in Paris, but this is dated July 1, 1861, and also responds to models precedents, since it has not been taken from nature. Of course, the dating of Le Breton's watercolor can be modified, since the year does not appear in his own work. We must discard the views of P. Mousse, printed in Clairaux's Buenos Aires workshop, 63 Piedad street, both because of their rarity and because of the more panoramic point of view that does not allow the definition of the constructions, in particular the New Customs. Nor could he have accessed the one made by Willems, edited in the home of Rodolfo Kratzenstein, 48 San Martín street. Thus, we must consider that the most probable source is that the accessible source has been the illustration by Emile Bourdelin published in Le Monde Illustré of 2 April 1859, p. 216-217, entitled Vue de Buenos-Ayres, prize de la place de la Douane. D’Apres une photographie de M. Noël, communiquée para M. le chargé d’affaires (5). This image circulated independently as a colored engraving; in the illustrated magazine it was accompanied by two other illustrations by Bourdelin: a view of the Plaza de la Victoria with the Colón Theater building, and of greater interest the Rosas mansion in Palermo during the agricultural exhibition. The Monsieur Noël mentioned as the author of the photograph is surely Louis Noël, who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1857 (6), author of notable costumbrist paintings such as Mercado de Constitución (private col.), A view of the south of the city, and portraits (eg, that of Colonel Seguí of the National Historical Museum), among other works.
If we compare the watercolor with Bourdelin's illustration published in Le Monde Illustré that occupies the lower sector of the double page with his article entitled “Buenos Aires”, it is possible to indicate two aspects that motivate us to think that it is its source: in the representation of the New Customs by Le Breton, a slight curve is observed in the facade facing the river that breaks the semicircle of the platform, coinciding with the image published in the French magazine; the second is that it locates behind that building -in front of the city- an architecture that seems to confusingly unite the Cathedral and the Cabildo tower, with a certain architectural invention, in keeping with the scarce definition in that sector in Le Monde Illustré. The watercolor also shows the churches of San Ignacio and La Merced, the Hotel del Globo and the Harbor Master's Office.
This set -to which we must add the bird's eye view of Jean-Desirée Dulin (1839-1919)- underlines the interest of recording the new image of Buenos Aires from the river with the volume of the New Customs, a large public building which began to be built in 1855 and was inaugurated in 1857. It is a project of the English architect Eduardo Taylor –for which it was known by his name-. The design featured a masonry pier, which penetrated the river from the five-story semicircular platform lined with arched galleries. Customs solved the unloading and loading of merchandise and its storage in warehouses; at the dock, it went three hundred meters inland, a system of winches was installed. Until then, as can be seen in early iconography, disembarkation was carried out at some docks that allowed passengers to reach land after transferring from ships to large carts or some barges. And so it was even more problematic for the transport of merchandise, causing complaints from the trade for the losses caused, which did not correspond to the heavy tariffs.
In 1860, the issue of customs was a central point in the negotiations between the State of Buenos Aires and the Argentine Confederation, and these questions appeared frequently in the French press. The Taylor building was the symbol of a city open to commerce, of a new liberal era after the federal regime, the sign of modernization. In this sense, the central tower had a lighthouse that managed to dominate a wide radius from its 25 meters high, in our river of open perspectives. He also referred to the past to underline the glory of the city, the central portal, resembling a triumphal arch surmounted by a façade.
The main modification of Le Breton with its possible printed model is seen in the boats on the river. If in Emile Bourdelin these are in calm waters, moored in parallel to the pier that functions as a market and promenade space, with a variety of figures with a diversity of clothing; At Le Breton, a war schooner dominates the scene, with six guns per side with the Argentine flag, plus other smaller sailboats and small boats battling with the strong waves. A few figures can be seen on the dock, and the external head is not observed. In lithography, the presence of this, with its curve, is the main diverse detail, which generates greater depth, and mitigates the strong diagonal of watercolor. In addition, it has a greater panoramic opening, observing the two towers of Santo Domingo. A curious detail, shared by watercolor and lithography, is the mountainous area in the background, probably an erroneous graphic reading.
Moores records the colored lithographs and another sepia, considers them rare, and assumes from an observed specimen that they may have been made in 1860 or 1865. However, the name of the printers can settle this question: “Bulla Frères, rue Tiquetonne. Imp. Becquet Paris”. If the former remained active with various houses, Louis Becquet's lithograph closed its activity on December 19, 1862. (7)
1. “Sur la Zélée, M. Goupil emplit ses cartons de tableaux précieux, et sur l'Astrolabe, le jeune chirurgien Le Breton, qui a un talent remarquable dans ce genre, exécute aussi à ma demande des dessins charmants Jules Dumont-D’Urville. “Rapport sur les opérations de la campagne depuis le départ de Rio de Janeiro jusqu’à l' arrivée a Valparaiso. A bord de la corvette l’Astrolabe, 25 de mai 1838, à la mer. Le Moniteur universel, n°315, 11/11/1838, p. 2432, col. 2. In Goupil's work, with reference to our territory, the watercolor Chef Patagón en costume de guerre, from 1838, stands out.
2. An edition in 10 volumes, in 1841-1846. The definitive Voyage au pôle sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zélée, exécuté ... pendant les années 1837-1838-1839-1840 sous le commandement de J. Dumont d'Urville, capitaine de vaisseau. Paris: Gide, 1841-1854. Rear Admiral D ’Urville died with his family in the May 8 train accident in Meudon.
3. Jennifer Moss, "Louis Le Breton" in Joseph Armstrong Baird (ed.) The Impact of French Art and Culture on California from the Voyages of Discovery to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. University of California, mimeo, 1975.
4. Available copies of digitized newspapers have been consulted, the closure due to the pandemic prevents an in-depth search in this regard.
5. Moores wrongly indicates that it was published in 1858. Guillermo H. Moores. Pictures and Views of the City of Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Municipality of the City of Buenos Aires, 1945, p. 120, no. 155.
6. His name appears mentioned as León -perhaps because of associating him with the painter Adolphe-León Noël, however, when the painter's assets were auctioned for his departure from Carlos Ristorini's house, he warned “In the house of Mr. D. Luis Noël, 158 Perú street". He signed with his initial. Adolfo Ribera ("Painting", in: Historia general del arte en la Argentina. Buenos Aires, National Academy of Fine Arts, v. 3, pp. 264-265) notes his arrival in 1858, by press notices. The passenger register records the arrival of a French passenger, Louis F. Noel from Havre, on the ship Franzen, on February 24, 1857. We consider that it may be our painter. The arrival of any León Noel passenger is not registered.
7. Corinne Bouquin and Élisabeth Parinet. Dictionnaire des imprimeurs-lithographes du XIXe siècle, École nationale des Chartes, Center Jean Mabillon. Online.