Only one of Daguerre’s dioramas remains today, but their influence was lasting, as a new exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris shows. Later interpreters of the diorama — a term that came to encompass miniature models as well as naturalistic scenes of taxidermied animals in museums — knew that viewers wouldn’t be able to resist being fascinated by things they knew were fake. And contemporary artists would bring new life to the form decades later, offering up enclosed concoctions that pandered to our eagerness to be voyeurs.
The most enchanting pieces on view are those that recreate the play of light that characterized Daguerre’s dioramas. In one series from the 18th century, celestial scenes, dense with shooting stars and vaguely Grecian imagery, were cut into cardboard and lit dramatically in warm tones. There’s also a set of delightful miniature painted slides from 1849 that would have been inserted into the Polyorama Panoptique, an optical toy device originally sold as a diorama souvenir. For these, artists made tiny incisions in streetlamps and windows to allow light to pass through, so that in the space of half a minute, a calm afternoon along the Seine would transform into a festive night scene, with fireworks bursting over the river. In another slide, a cathedral bathed in sunlight turns into the scene of a sermon at sunset, with the crowd illuminated by a dazzling, newly emerged chandelier. It’s impossible not to be transfixed by these shifting scenes, and to wonder at the magic of such a simple mechanism marking the passage of time.
Today, dioramas are most closely associated with natural history museums, where lifelike animals are meticulously arranged against a painted backdrop to foster a semblance of reality. Conservationist Carl Akeley, driven by his concern for the survival of gorillas, created the first ones for New York’s Museum of Natural History in 1889. (That institution would later be lampooned in the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum, clips of which open and close the Dioramas exhibit.)