The story of ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’, the photograph by Man Ray that may become the most expensive in history

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One of the most iconic photographs in history is ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924). It came out of the surrealist imagination of Man Ray (1890-1976). In his Paris studio he portrayed his mistress Kiki de Montparnasse, unaware that he would be remembered for trying to provoke society with a woman’s body transformed into a wind instrument.


The photograph ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (Ingres’s violin) is a photomontage open to multiple interpretations. It is an image with an innovative technique at the time. It tells many things, from a tribute to the great painter Ingres and his nudes, to an erotic desire through the fascination of music. All in a copy of just 10×15 cm.

According to Christie’s housethis work could sell for between five and seven million dollars, which would make it the most expensive photograph ever sold by them, above the 4.3 million dollars of ‘Rhine II’ by Andreas Gurskyauctioned in 2011. Right now the most expensive photograph is the controversial ‘Phantom’ by Peter Lickfor which they paid 6.5 million dollars in 2014.

andreas gursky rhein ii

Andreas Gursky ‘Rhein II’

Justice would finally be served we would have in the first place one of the works that has most influenced photographers, not a mere bank speculation. The technique is prodigious. It is not made with a single shot, but with several processes that remind us that manipulation does not come from the digital world, but is in the minds of creators who want to see the world in a different way.

The historical context of ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’

When you dive into the History of photography you discover many things. The first thing is that to be original it is not necessary to have a digital camera, not even a mobile. Secondly, you realize that the creation depends a lot on the training and genius of the author. And that this is not just giving a button, but one more step of the many necessary.

‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ is a perfect example of the early period of surrealism (1924–1938). World War I is over, and the world has changed. There was hope in that little time of peace and the artists cling to another way of looking at reality to change things. A body is no longer just a body, but can be seen as an instrument ready to be played.

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We cannot forget that surrealism comes from a rib of Dadaism, an aesthetic and artistic movement close to anarchy that wanted to break with the values ​​of the corseted and classist bourgeoisie that blushed before a nude. Surrealism preferred to follow a path marked by the precepts of André Bretón to leave a mark on society.

A woman’s body was the best way to attract the attention of society. But she did not limit herself to showing it according to the corseted canons of the time. Man Ray first showed it as something else. He offers the viewer a double reading, which reality may be different from how we normally see it.

A woman’s back is more than just a collection of bones, muscles and flesh. It is not just sex as the most closed minds see it. Man Ray demonstrated that objects are not only as we see them, but as we imagine them in dreams.

‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ and its history

man ray He was an American artist who embraced surrealism to the last consequences. To such an extent that he went to Paris, the birthplace of the movement, without knowing a word of French. He did not consider himself a photographer, he just wanted to learn how to photograph his paintings. And his life was a perfect example of the movement, because he triumphed with his shots and was never recognized as a master of brushes.

In 1924 he decides to photograph his muse and lover Kiki de Montparnasse. From this image all the artists chose her as her model. Who was this woman? She was the muse of the Montparnasse artists, from Man Ray to Ernest Hemingway, passing through the sculptors Pablo Gargallo or Alexander Calder. She was even the actress of choice for surrealist films, such as ‘Le Ballet Mecanique’ (1924)

He was so important at the time, a model for some of the most important avant-garde works, that he dared to publish his memoirs when he was only 28 years old. He was so successful that they bought the rights to translate them into English. That book was censored by the US government. And the introduction was written by the same author of ‘Paris was a party’.

Fame ended up devouring her and what Hemingway said in his memoirs:

Without any doubt, Kiki reigned in this era of Montparnasse with much more force than Queen Victoria was ever capable of throughout her entire existence.

We turn to what her biographer Fréderic Kohner commented when he saw her in her last days:

Her face was ravaged by age to the point of making her unrecognizable. It was a face where one could already feel death very close to her, where one could already guess the corpse. Her outrageous makeup only accentuated the impression of decomposition she gave.

She died alone and abandoned, reading the palms of the forgotten in the cafes where she had the power to end parties. Her funeral was attended by all who admired her. She is buried next to a tombstone that reads: ‘Kiki, 1901–1953, singer, actress, painter, Queen of Montparnasse’.

The Violon d'Ingres

Photography with its inspiration

But back to his happy years. Man Ray places her on her back wearing a turban, like the nudes done by the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the beginning of the 19th century. As a surrealist artist he decides to transform what we see to give it another meaning.

The woman’s body becomes a string instrument due to the work and grace of its forms and above all by the two ears that impress on her back. Here we can make multiple interpretations. From sexual to Man Ray’s desire to also be recognized as a musician. Everyone is free to think what they want. We are facing a magnum opus of surrealism.

The technique to achieve this image draws a lot of attention to the children of computer science, to those who have never set foot in a dark laboratory. As we can read on the Christie’s page:

Man Ray used a mask to burn the shapes of the ears into the photographic paper, in place of Kiki’s back. He cut F-shaped holes in a sheet of thick paper, placed this template on a sheet of photographic paper, and then exposed it to light, causing the F-shaped holes to print. Kiki’s image was then printed onto the sheet with the f-holes, using the original negative and an enlarger, and the two exposures were combined to create Le Violon d’Ingres. It is from a negative copy of this resulting photograph that the present batch and all subsequent copies of the image have been made.

It’s a photo montage. There is no trace of paint and she never stained the skin of his model. She took the photograph in the studio, positiveized the image, and her body would remind him of an instrument. So she took out the scissors, cut out the shape of the violin’s ears and created an unforgettable work.

The paper went through two light exposures. The first with the template of the ears in efe. She then placed the paper in the enlarger and exposed the perfectly positioned back negative. And he put the paper in the three developing baths. This explains why the body is so soft and the violin ears have such a distinct crispness. He photographed that image and what they auction is a positive of this original negative.

The role of ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ in art history

It is a masterpiece. This is one of the first examples of the use of visual metaphor. Until then, photography only showed reality, a reflection of the truth as it was condemned since Aragó presented it in 1839.

Man Ray was able to go further and teach that photography is an artistic manifestation. It is a work of interpretation of reality, an incursion into dreams.

Photography freed painting from the representation of reality. But that doesn’t mean he can’t get into other worlds. In Man Ray’s hands the camera was capable of speaking another language. And to achieve this, he used the photographic technique to capture an idea.

‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ is a canonical image, the change of direction of photography. It inaugurated a new path that many today follow when they talk about matte painting and dream worlds with the help of digital software. And he showed that the technique is not at odds with the concept. To take a photograph it is not only necessary to see, it is also necessary to think.

The expectation is maximum. Christie’s has valued this copy from the marriage’s personal collection Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs at an exorbitant price.

Its value lies in the direct relationship of this marriage with all those artists and in the inscription that appears behind this small copy: ‘For Hans Richter/ affectionately/ Man Ray’. He was one of the author’s filmmaker friends.

man ray Will it become the most expensive photograph in history?

It also seems that It is one of the few vintages that are preserved, that is, a copy made by the author from the original negative in the same year it was made. So if your family was around Paris in those years, it might be interesting to look in the attic in case you have any hidden treasure in the photo albums that they taught you as a child.

And as always happens, is one of the most reproduced and copied images. There are murals, novel covers, restaurants and more with this photograph. He has become an icon, a reflection of that time with a fascinating and unknown story behind it.

Meanwhile, we mortals can always approach the museums that have a copy of the photograph. It won’t be as valuable, but in the Queen Sofiain room 205.16, for example, we can see a larger copy than the one now up for auction.

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Is the same? Does such a high price make sense? Isn’t the particularity of photography precisely its multiplicity? Why is the first of many copies worth so much? We’ll see when the auction is held.

One of the most iconic photographs in history is ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924). It came out of the surrealist imagination…

One of the most iconic photographs in history is ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924). It came out of the surrealist imagination…

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