PhotoLexicon, Volume 2, nr. 3 (September 1985) (en)

François Carlebur

Sander Creman


François Carlebur is known as a painter of maritime scenes and landscapes. He also gained notoriety by being one of the first to set up a photography studio in the city where he lived, Dordrecht. Here one could readily acquire daguerreotype, calotype, and in later years, carte-de-visite portraits.




François Carlebur is born on 9 October at Voorstraat D 68 in Dordrecht as the son of Dirk François Carlebur, a mirror builder, and Maria Johanna Arendina Ruts.


Carlebur receives his first instruction in painting from J.C. Schotel in Dordrecht, an accomplished maritime painter.


Starting on 20 October, Carlebur is registered as a member of the Dordtsche Teekengenootschap Pictura (‘Dordrecht Drawing Society Pictura’).


Carlebur travels to Scotland by boat. During his stay there, he paints to earn his living.


Upon his return to Dordrecht, Carlebur marries Maria Vliegenthart on 7 April 1847. The couple moves to Wolwevershaven B 303. Four children are born from this marriage.

Ca. 1848

Carlebur possibly studies for a brief period under L.J.M. Daguerre in Paris to learn daguerreotyping.


As of 15 September, Carlebur cancels his membership with Teekengenootschap Pictura. He nevertheless continues to paint and watercolour.


In the Dordrechtse Courant of 1 April, public mention is made of Carlebur’s photographic activity for the first time. In this year, Carlebur participates in the Provinciale Nijverheidstentoonstelling (‘Provincial Industry Exhibition’) held in his city, submitting two portrait photos. He is awarded a bronze medal, a sign of acquired skill.


Carlebur’s wife, Maria Vliegenthart, dies on 9 November 1859 from the consequences of cholera.


Following another temporary stay in Scotland, Carlebur marries Elisabeth Henrike Logger on 30 May 1860 in Dordrecht. Three children are born from this marriage. The Dordrecht city address book states Carlebur’s profession for the first time as ‘photografist’ (‘photographist’).


Carlebur again becomes a member of the Teekengenootschap Pictura, though his official profession remains that of a photographer. In the years that follow, he regularly visits clients in England and Scotland, including Lord Fitzwilliam and Maria Alexandrowna, a Russian princess living in England.


Carlebur gives up photography to devote his time entirely to painting. The Dordrecht city address book lists him once again as a painter (‘kunstschilder’). Carlebur remains active as a painter until the end of his life.


Carlebur dies on 13 April in Dordrecht.


François Carlebur’s youth and education are described in a letter written by his grandson and namesake dated 1959, today preserved at the RKD (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, ‘Netherlands Institute for Art History’). Because it is difficult to verify the accuracy of this information—recorded more than a century later—the contents of this letter must be approached with caution. The essence of the story reads as follows.

The grandson relates what is said to have happened as follows: François Carlebur had come into contact with the fine arts at a very early age. He saw his father painting, drawing, and constructing paper dioramas in his free time. Carlebur himself enjoyed drawing sailing ships, which he could see on the Meuse and Merwede rivers. A captain that had seen a drawing of his ship is said to have purchased the work for a small sum of money. It was then that the young Carlebur decided to become an artist. Against the will of his parents, he began as an apprentice of J.C. Schotel, a Dutch maritime painter in Dordrecht.

As a result of an unhappy love affair with Nancy van Ardenne, a young woman whom he had met through Schotel, Carlebur left the Netherlands and travelled by sailing ship to Scotland. Having disembarked in Aberdeen, unbeknownst to Carlebur the ship departed with all of his luggage still on board. During what was initially an obligatory stay in Scotland from 1841 to 1846, he earned his living from painting and drawing. Carlebur was greatly inspired by the mountains and lakes of the Scottish Highlands. They formed an ideal source of inspiration for paintings in watercolour and oil, which ensured him a substantial income.

Upon his return to Dordrecht in 1847, Carlebur departed for Paris in about 1848, where he stayed for a brief time. It is thought that he spent some time as an apprentice with L.J.M. Daguerre, who introduced him to the fundamentals of photography. Before Daguerre revealed the secrets of his process, Carlebur was obliged to promise he would never set up business in France. This is the story as it was told by the grandson. For the rest, he described his grandfather as a man with an entrepreneurial spirit and a healthy dose of curiosity. Carlebur’s numerous trips to the barren Scottish Highlands and across England in no way contradict this characterisation.

Perhaps it was precisely Carlebur’s curiosity that spurred him in the direction of photography. Economic reasons might also explain why he made such a shift in his career. Going by the official sources, Carlebur’s switch to photography appears to have occurred no earlier than about 1858. Nevertheless, based on his surviving photos, the information provided by the grandson, and a 1931 notice in the newspaper, an earlier date seems plausible.

In the Dordrechtsche Courant of 1 April 1858, Carlebur’s first advertisement appears: ‘The Undersigned hereby invites the Lovers of Photography, to come witness his experiments, which he has achieved after a lengthy and arduous Study.’ The content of this advertisement may point to the start of his career after an extended period of learning and experimenting. A more likely scenario, however, is that Carlebur had turned his interest to a new process with which he now wished to advertise. This conclusion may be drawn based on a watercoloured salt print (‘photographie peinte’, i.e. ‘painted photography) that he made of his children, dating from 1857. The surviving daguerreotype portraits produced by Carlebur can be dated from the late 1840s to the second half of the 1850s, based on clothing worn by the people portrayed.

Remarkably, only portrait photos by Carlebur are known. One would expect that a painter of maritime scenes and landscapes would also have introduced similar themes in his photographic work. According to the grandson, Carlebur had indeed taken photos of ships that were subsequently transferred in a smaller format onto ceramic supports and mounted as medallions for the wives of fishermen sailing out to sea. No tangible proof exists, however, to substantiate this intriguing bit of information.

Carlebur’s portrait studio on the Wolwevershaven in Dordrecht was one of the very earliest establishments of its kind in the Netherlands. Until about mid-1850s, photographers producing daguerreotypes generally went from city to city in order to find a sufficient number of customers. Carlebur began as a daguerreotypist, but he adapted himself continually to the rapid changes occurring in the profession. In doing so, he was able to support himself financially as a photographer for several decades. Although he started out as an extremely promising daguerreotypist, possessing both skill and creativity, in later years Carlebur conformed to the unwritten rules imposed by the carte-de-visite portrait, which even in his case, eventually led to rather stereotypical portrait shots. In the end, he never attained the level of Louis Wegner or the great portraitists of France with his portrait art. A preserved albumen print in a carte-de-visite format reveals that Carlebur also made photographic reproductions of drawings.

Only a few examples of Carlebur’s daguerreotype portraits have been preserved. They are of an extremely high quality, both in technical and compositional terms. The portrait form ‘from the waist up’, was not unusual in the tradition of painting. It was then adopted by photography, often with good results. Carlebur’s background as a painter is not only evident in his compositions, but also especially in his approach to lighting the sitter, i.e. using a light source that comes from the side, thereby heightening the portrait’s plasticity. When comparing Carlebur’s earliest daguerreotypes with those he made later, however, a noticeable difference in plasticity and sharpness can be observed. In these later portraits, his technical ability had risen to a very high level.

Carlebur colourised his daguerreotype portraits in essential areas, using gold paint for the jewellery, pink for the hands and faces, and an occasional dab of colour on the clothing, especially in the women’s portraits. In his watercoloured calotypes, he was able to demonstrate his painting skills even better than when applying the daguerreotype process. The rapidly fading salt print technique begged, as it were, to be coloured in by a trained hand. In addition to these two early photographic processes, Carlebur’s oeuvre also includes the wet collodion process for negative shots and the albumen process for positive prints. Clearly, his entrepreneurial spirit was in no way frightened off by technical and chemical issues inherent to his profession, which was still very much in an experimental phase.

In 1868, Carlebur became a member of the ‘Teekengenootschap Pictura’ for a second time, after having cancelled his membership in 1849. Drawing and painting were again becoming increasingly important for him. From this time forward, Carlebur was frequently represented at the annual exhibition, Levende Meesters (‘Living Masters’). His motives for switching to photography and his ultimate return to painting are unknown. Perhaps his photographic career was simply an intermezzo during a period when he was incapable of making a living as a painter. Notwithstanding, Carlebur as well gave photography his fullest effort, thus earning him a place among other talented portraitists in the pioneering years of Dutch photography. It could be that growing competition from C.E. Mögle, a good friend and a fellow citizen of Dordrecht, was what finally persuaded Carlebur to return to his original profession, to which he remained faithful for the rest of his long life.


Secondary bibliography

Dordrechtsche Courant, 1 april 1858.

Dordrechtsche Courant, 18 september 1858.

Dordrechtsche Courant, 21 september 1858.

Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, 15 augustus 1878.

Dordrechtse Courant, 3 juli 1887.

Dordrechtse Courant, 15 april 1893.

Auteur onbekend, Een vergeten jaartal, in Baarnsch Nieuwsblad, 13 maart 1931.

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf (red.), Fotografie in Nederland 1839-1920, Den Haag (Staatsuitgeverij) 1978, p. 92.

Pieter Scheen, Lexicon Nederlandse Beeldende Kunstenaars 1750-1880, ‘s-Gravenhage 1981.


1858 (e) Dordrecht, tentoonstelling ten huize van François Carlebur.

1858 (g) Dordrecht, Provinciale Nijverheidstentoonstelhng.

1977 (g) Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, Het Groepsportret 1845-1922


Den Haag, Rijksdienst voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie.

Dordrecht, Gemeentearchief.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, documentatiebestand.


Dordrecht, Gemeentearchief.

Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.